I first came across the statements from the Art Workers’ Coalition 1969 Open Hearing while researching the history of artists’ involvement in the labour movement. The statements consisted of a stack of photocopies of typewritten and in some cases handwritten documents. Some of the documents had been photocopied multiple times and were barely legible ; some of them had been overwritten (this was before word processing, or even computers).
The AWC began in 1969 when the sculptor Takis, along with a group of friends, removed a sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art, because he was not consulted on exhibiting the work, which no longer represented his current art practice. This act drew attention to the conditions for artistic production and the political responsibility of the artistic community. The broader context was feminism, anti-racism and anti-Vietnam War activism, as well as the critiques of artistic autonomy emerging out of Conceptual Art and Minimalism. The group supporting Takis presented the director of MOMA with a list of 13 demands, one of them being an open hearing on museum reform. They were refused, so they instead held the meeting at the School of Visual Arts on 10 April 1969. Each person read a statement aloud. The statements questioned the artist’s role in society, the function of art institutions and the market, and how both were connected to the military-industrial complex.
The passionate, declarative, even manifesto-like nature of the statements called for them to be read aloud, which was what led me to explore the ‘re-speaking’ of the statements in the project The AWC 1969 Open Hearing Revisited. What also struck me was their use of oppositional language, which to me seemed lacking in a largely depoliticised art world. Terms such as ‘revolution’ and ‘liberation’ came up quite frequently. There were also some very harsh condemnations of how deeply both culture and cultural institutions were implicated in imperialism and war.
The project, which took place within the framework of the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest #5, involved circulating an open call for people to read the Open Hearing statements aloud, and also to reflect on the associations, memories and questions brought up by the reading process. I recorded the conversations and posted them online as MP3 files at www.journalofaestheticsandpr....
In a well-known phrase in ‘On the Concept of History’, Walter Benjamin calls for the historical materialist to explore a particular epoch, life or work out of the continuum of history, or in other words, ‘a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past’ (Benjamin : 1940). It occurred to me that my fascination with the AWC 1969 Open Hearing was along these lines : deliberately using a past moment to interrogate the present.
The statements contradicted those conventional art historical narratives where artists preoccupy themselves with only making art and never become directly involved in politics (conventional art history as historicism).
As documents, the AWC statements also function as a kind of physical evidence of what was said at a particular point in time, with all its problems and contradictions. Because the documents were mostly typewritten or handwritten, the corrections and editing decisions were visible. While they reflect the technological limitations of the time, there is also something disarming about them, in terms of not hiding mistakes or being too careful about what we say in public.
Reading the statements aloud also means encountering language that we would never use today : certain expressions or phrases that now sound strange and unfamiliar. I am specifically interested in the political language we can comfortably use without losing our credibility, and how the parameters of this ’credibility’ might shift and change over time, reflecting hegemonic beliefs and codes of proper behaviour. Out of the sense of the failure and exhaustion of certain words (’revolution’ as empty rhetoric or radical chic) have we now become much more cautious, and even constricted in how we talk about politics ?
I am suggesting that these ideologies and processes of self-censorship have been internalised to the point of becoming instinctive. This is not only a rational, but also an emotional and physical process : certain words feel wrong, they sit awkwardly in our mouths as we speak them. This is one of the reasons I asked people to read the AWC Open Hearing documents aloud : so they could physically experience that sense of awkwardness, and, through the recording process, to capture that live negotiation with these words and concepts from another time which now seem inappropriate. In the readings, some people laughed or sounded surprised or shocked when reading the statements.
The AWC 1969 Open Hearing statements are compelling for their oppositional spirit. Of course, the point is not to return to 1969 ; some of the statements are actually quite problematic, and reflect some sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes. What is the most useful about them is how they unsettle the relationship between the past and the present ; implicitly they call for new forms of oppositional language.