An Interview with Gregory Sholette

What follows are excerpts of an exchange between the editors of C_M_L and Gregory Sholette, one of the founders of Political Art Documentations/Distribution (PAD/D), a collective whose activities included the creation of an archive of politically agitational and socially progressive art centered in New York City. The archive was initiated in 1979 by critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard as an open call. Other members of PAD/D included Barbara Moore, and Mimi Smith, Jerry Kearns, Vanalyne Greene, Mickie McGee, Janet Koenig, Herb Perr, Keith Christensen, Jerri Allyn, Beverly Naidus, Irving Wexler, Ed Eisenberg, Jody Wright, and Charles Frederick. The matter collected by PAD/D has been housed in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art since 1989.

This poster was collectively conceived of during a meeting of the PAD/D Not For Sale anti-gentrification committee in 1984. Janet Koenig was responsible for realising the actual design, and the posters themselves were silk-screened at the Lower East Side Print Shop. Members of the NFS Committee included: Janet Koenig, Michael Anderson, Jody Wright, Ed Eisenberg, Glenn Stevens, Karen Kowles, Eileen Whalen, and Gregory Sholette.

In Lucy R. Lippard's text, Archival Activism, she writes that PAD/D strove for a "theory developed out of real experience instead of out of academically idealized notions." Was there a sense of political detachment felt among artists and performers? Do you think PAD/D succeeded to an extent in changing this attitude?

When I arrived in New York City in 1977 to attend The Cooper Union the very idea of explicitly mixing art and politics was considered retrograde. My mentor at school, Hans Haacke, was typically described as a conceptual, not a political artist. The co-founder of Group Material, Tim Rollins perhaps put it best when he quipped that “political art” conjured-up “charcoal sketches of Lenin and clenched fists.” Although I must admit developing an appreciation for amateur charcoal drawings since then, it is correct to say that compared not just to the 1920s and 1930s, but even to the 1960s and early 1970s, the critical discourse surrounding art in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a very hermetic and formalist one in the United States. The importance of feminism and performance art was not felt in art schools at the time because second-generation abstract expressionists still dominated these institutions for the most part. Meanwhile, archconservative Hilton Kramer at the New York Times policed the art world for any signs of radical dissent. At one point Kramer even called for a boycott of Artforum by commercial art galleries when the magazine’s editors, Max Kozloff and John Coplans, dared to publish essays suggesting that art actually had a relationship to society! So yes, I think by agitating from the margins PAD/D contributed to the change of discourse about art and politics especially in New York City, however, I think even more directly effective at the time was Lucy Lippard’s regular art review column in the Village Voice. Lippard was fearless when it came to writing what was on her mind, and as a key member of PAD/D that often reflected the political activism of the group at any particular moment. But in addition, we should bear in mind the widespread rejection of Greenbergian formalism and the rise of Hip Hop culture from street to mainstream during the 1980s, as well as of course the East Village art scene with its recognition of graffiti, handcrafts, outsider painting and sculpture as “serious” (collectible) artworks. But like many self-institutionalized groups formed by artists then or since, PAD/D could not sustain the multiple levels of activity it had imposed on itself. Neither was it prepared for the increasingly conservative political environment of the decade or the diminution of the organized Left.

PAD/D's journal Upfront

PAD/D wrote in an early issue of its journal Upfront, that it wanted to “provide artists with an organized relationship to society.” The full text reads: PAD/D seeks to provide artists with an organized relationship to society, to demonstrate the political effectiveness of image making, and to provide a framework within which progressive artists can discuss and develop alternatives to the mainstream art system. We think that Camel collective grows out of an analogous struggle/crises under our current anti-social, perhaps even proto-fascist government. Many of the military and financial policies PAD/D reacted to during the Regan years are still in place.

The historical position PAD/D operated from made the assumption that most visually-based artists are not good at working collectively or selflessly because its simply not part of their fine arts training. Therefore acting as a mediator or conduit, PAD/D might be able to bridge this gap between artists and society. In a sense you could say PAD/D sought to function as a supplement that corrected an imagined deficit within bourgeois art. On one hand PAD/D was indeed non-governmental in so far as we were self-organized and had little or no links to official institutions. On the other hand, in so far as we sought to provide political leadership to cultural workers who we believed would otherwise remain disorganized and haphazard in their relationship to politics, PAD/D understood its role as a nebulously vanguard one (after all we belonged to no party and held to no particular political line). Still, one must recall that when the group emerged at the end of the 1970s, the United States, and New York City in particular, were still in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis since the 1930s. At the same time the US had recently lost Southeast Asia to communism, had just lost Iran to fundamentalists, had just lost Nicaragua to populist Marxists, and had almost melted-down the Eastern seaboard thanks to the Three-Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. Not unlike our present moment today one could then find major news magazines such as Time and Newsweek pronouncing the “end of capitalism.” By seeking to focus the ever-present, yet ambiguous dissent typical of artists towards a productive militant radicalism, PAD/D’s task appeared to be tailor-made for this historic crisis. I am curious if C-M-L feels the same way about the present crisis of capitalism?

What was the criteria for PAD/D’s selection process to the archive?

All of this accumulation started sometime in 1979 when Lippard had used the backside of an invitation card from an exhibition she curated at Artist’s Space to invite unknown artists with social or political work to send her documentation. And they did, in numbers she had not anticipated. It was Lippard who called the first meeting together that year, ostensibly to solve a growing problem she was facing in her loft. For months she had been inundated with posters, slides, and other documentation sent to her by what she called the “many good, socially active artists no one heard of....”

The material in the PAD/D archive was unfiltered, which is to say, it was self-selected by those groups and individuals who sent material for inclusion and who therefore identified with the concept of the archive itself. Barbara Moore and Mimi Smith, the two most responsible for organizing the archive, pointed out in a recent e-mail to me:

“The archive was set up to let the sender make the decision about whether or not his or her work qualified as socially conscious. If it came in we catalogued it with the same careful detail no matter what, (except for some prints of cats they received.) We were actually surprised that we didn't get more right-wing material or more materials about just plain art that had no social consciousness.”

The material was sorted into this and that category—ecological art, lesbian art, labor related art, …etc. No exclusions were made regarding any of the material submitted. This procedure already stands in sharp contrast with the normal collecting practices of most museums.

Seeing the multiplicity of projects that PAD/D realized over the years, it seems that it was far more than being 'just' an archive? Did you see yourself at that time being part of a larger movement?

As you can tell from PAD/D’s occasionally grandiose mission statements, the group did indeed perceive itself to be part of a larger social and political movement (as opposed to a party or subculture or even counter-culture). This “movement” was sometimes simply referred to as “The Movement,” as if its existence was self-evident. But actually pinpointing the contours of this larger movement is not so easy. I would say that PAD/D drew its identity from elements of the U.S. Civil Rights, Feminist, Student Anti-Vietnam War, and the Anti-Nuclear movements of the1960s and 1970s. The group also sought to look beyond domestic politics. One of its bolder objectives was the forging of “an international, grass roots network of artist/activists who will support with their talents and their political energies the liberation and self-determination of all disenfranchised peoples." Given the political events of the late 1970s and early 1980s, mentioned earlier, and our proximity to Latin America, it is understandable that our political focus centered largely on opposition to United States military intervention in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Collage by Jerry Kearns

What were some of the factors that contributed to the end of PAD/D's activities?

My sense is that some people wanted to engage in a more dynamic way with making culture, rather than serving as archivists. At the same time the group’s swaggering rhetoric reveals something tragic-comic about PAD/D, something that sets its little-known history apart from other political artists’ organizations at the time, including Group Material (founded just a few months earlier in 1979). For example PAD/D’s ambitious effort to inaugurate a national, even international progressive cultural network in February of 1982 actually took place at a time of severe political retrenchment in the United States, Canada, Britain, and elsewhere. Of course this was also a time of stupendous growth in the contemporary art market. So here PAD/D was, calling on artists to become militant, to align their practices with the struggle of “all disenfranchised people,” just as the larger cultural zeitgeist was moving to the right, and when many younger artists were seeing dollar signs. Tragic-comic.

That said, most PAD/D members chose not to participate in the commercial side of the art world despite the latter’s growing cultural influence, financial rewards, and global expansion throughout the1980s. One might describe this rejection as naïve or even self-defeatist, but one could also recognize in it a desire to avoid acting in bad faith, even if that meant choosing an increasingly isolated position linked to some broader notion of radical change. Ironically, by the later 1980s, the mainstream art world was ready to cautiously embrace some types of “political art,” and did so in a series of fairly high-profile exhibitions including the exhibition Deborah Wye organized the MOMA in 1988, Committed To Print.

When visiting the PAD/D archive at MOMA we were impressed by so much collected material on socially-engaged art in the one place. How has the role of the archive changed since it’s entry into the MOMA’s collection?

It is an inestimable service the MOMA provides with regards to the PAD/D Archive. Many younger scholars and artists are making excellent use of it. Not only has the museum agreed to house it, MOMA is also integrating its index into their library system to make it searchable online (the original index was on 4 x 5 inch paper cards). From all accounts the MOMA has been generous with visitors who wish to see the material, and meanwhile, the museum has itself borrowed from the PAD/D Archive for its own exhibitions from time to time. The one downside to all this is that the archive has unfortunately been frozen in time so that its content range is 1979 to 1988. This was a pre-condition that the museum placed on accepting the collection in 1989 from the Archive Committee. Ideally, an archive about social and political culture would remain open and dynamic and would have a dedicated staff that not only would seek out new material, but also locate other settings through which to display aspects of the collection and through which to inspire similar production. Perhaps the entire PAD/D Archive will be digitized in the future, and then at least the “distribution” ingredient of the group’s mission will be realized “posthumously.”

Collage by Janet Koenig

Very often art is divided under these two terms: Political Art and Other Art (i.e. Commercial Art). I wonder if this way of thinking doesn’t essentialize contingent and multivalent activities. Are there not political readings of art, rather than political objects or performances, or political archives for that matter?

Of course all art is political since it is produced under particular social and economic conditions. This is so no matter how autonomous a particular work of art may appear to be. But there are also many works of art, and a great many artistic practices that explicitly seek to communicate something political, or in some cases, to actually produce political effects. These represent a de facto counter-history to the normative canon of art and its narrative of art for art’s sake. And while this other, counter-mythos is fragmented and not entirely inseparable from that of mainstream art, neither is it entirely synonymous with the latter either. This is why I think it is just as serious a mistake to be equivocal about such intentionally militant cultural practices, as well as the counter-discourse they generate, as it is to inelegantly sort art works into such coarse categories as political and a-political, commercial and anti-market. Nevertheless, with that in mind, it is easy to see how some artists become adept at producing a sort of “hot-house” version of “political art.” This is a type of work that cannot really exist outside the managed environment of art galleries, museums, and funding agencies. It is a form of agri-culture that becomes popular whenever artistic taste shifts towards socially engaged practices, as it did in the late 1980s, and appears to be doing again judging from the growing interest in Situationism and interventionist art by mainstream cultural institutions and academia.

One could argue that the boom in critical cultural production in New York City had something to do with low-rent spaces and the introduction of the loft laws in the late 70s and early 80s. C-M-L has, for reasons both financial and geographic, decided to exist solely on the web. What do you think are the potentials and drawbacks of web-based production?

Booming cultural production will not stop because most artists are being locked out of urban spaces or because they are suddenly surrounded and subdued by what Saskia Sassen calls the leisure zones of global cities. Rather, what we can expect is more and more outsourcing of artistic manufacturing to locations with lower overhead, even as the display and sales apparatus of the art world will remain in city centers for symbolic as well as practical reasons (most especially to provide safe and easy access for collectors).

It seems that the web is a weak compensation for this geographic displacement. What do you think is lost in this exchange?

What has been lost, and what may never return in many developed cosmopolitan centers, is the kind of collegial, micro-societies in which artists—and other residents, family, and friends—exchange forms of knowledge and mutual assistance simply not convertible into digital or cellular networks. This activity can be as banal as babysitting a child or a pet, or cooking a meal while someone installs an exhibition, to the circulation of materials and techniques for making something, to the production of a newsletter, to the organizing of a group or rally or other action. But from a practical point of view, your proposal for a web-based existence is difficult to argue against and it does have advantages, especially for distributing information on a scale and at a speed not possible in the past. In many ways, the development of reasonably open-source platforms is just what PAD/D hoped to accomplish in the pre-internet (and also pre-PC) world of the early1980s. The dangers that online activism and digitized collectivism face might not be due to a relative disconnection from physical intervention and organizing, but from the very same interests now encircling other resources including airwaves, water, genes, blood, and of course oil. The web will remain an alternative as cheap informational “real estate” only as long as it escapes being subsumed by capital. The history of battling gentrification, including even cyber-gentrification, is worth studying. Sadly, it is mostly a history of failure on our part. How the global financial crisis will affect these enclosures and leisure zones has yet to be determined, however, just as with the crash of 1989 that blew apart the art market several years later, in 1992, this current contraction will certainly alter cultural production for a very long time. That of course, is an opportunity for real change.

Image by Day Gleeson

Which three art projects would you choose to represent PAD/D's activities for the C-M-L archive?

My favorite PAD/D projects were “Death and Taxes” (1981), the “Not for Sale” anti-gentrification projects (1983,1984), and the PAD/D archive itself. (Details on the two public projects are in the PAD/D newsletters that I am in the process of uploading to the site http://darkmatterarchives.net. They are also described in my text A Collectography of PAD/D: Political Art Documentation and Distribution: A 1980’s Activist Art and Networking Collective

A longer version of this interview can be found in the attachment below.

C_M_L -Interview_GregoryShollette.0109.pdf1.33 MB