I saw the Hans Haacke retrospective at the New Museum here in New York on the morning of Wednesday November 13, 2019. I know this not because I recall the otherwise unremarkable day off the top of my head, or because I found an entry in my calendar, or because I came across a ticket stub in the pocket of a winter coat. I know it only because I took a photograph, just one, while I was there and my phone recorded the date of that image. It’s not a picture of an artwork, but of a didactic panel that accompanied one of the earliest pieces in the show, Ice Stick, of 1966. The text, written by the artist in the following year, reads:
A “sculpture” that physically reacts to its environment can no longer be regarded as an object. The range of outside factors affecting it, as well as its own radius of action, reach beyond the space it materially occupies. It thus merges with the environment in a relationship that is better understood as a “system” of interdependent processes. These processes evolve without the viewer’s empathy. They become a witness. A system is not imagined; it is real. 1
This label seemed to want memorialization that afternoon because the idea it articulates felt crucial to understanding what I was seeing in the galleries. What became clear as I made my way around the exhibition was that while the observation may have been inspired by that single work, it was actually a nascent articulation by the young artist — Haacke was then 30 — of an organizing principle that would come to guide his entire practice; fundamental contingency, for Haacke, was the condition not only of artistic objects but also of actions and utterances in the related areas of inquiry to which he would devote his attention.
Haacke has long argued that what we do and say should never be seen as discrete or dis-locatable from the world at large.
His practice has argued for more than half a century that, like the things we make, what we do and say should never be understood as discrete or dis-locatable from the world at large; all must be considered — scrutinized and critiqued — as implicated in the contexts — social, economic, political, historical, spatial, environmental — in which they are produced and encountered. The myriad outside factors that might affect our words and deeds are not always evident — in truth they are often obscure, and often so deliberately so — just as our own radius of action is difficult to accurately gauge. It’s precisely for these reasons that Haacke has so insistently made the case that the complex, interpenetrating systems that influence our expressions and behaviors deserve careful, critical investigation.
I was at the museum that day because I had agreed to write an essay about the show, Hans Haacke: All Connected, for Places — this essay, a piece that was meant to be finished in mid-December. When first a personal issue and then the impending holidays intervened to make that impossible, the text was postponed. In mid-January, word began to circulate about a viral outbreak in China and by the middle of the next month, the illness had spread to other countries. On Monday February 24, I traded emails with a friend in Venice who described the slow, inexorable shuttering of the city. That same day the first reports emerged of the killing the previous day of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, who was chased down and shot to death by a White man and his son while jogging in a residential neighborhood in a town in southeast Georgia.
By then, my piece had been rescheduled, with a new due date of Thursday March 12. I worked away in the intervening weeks, increasingly distracted by the news, and on the morning I was supposed to file the still unfinished text, we learned that our daughter’s college had made the decision to close campus for the foreseeable future because of concerns over COVID-19, and so much of the day was spent sorting out contingency plans. The next day, Friday March 13 — four months to the day since I had seen the show — marked the last time my wife would commute to her office in Manhattan and the day that our neighbors in Brooklyn announced that they were packing up and that night would take themselves and their three young children out of the city for the duration. It was also the day that Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician, was killed inside her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment by police officers executing a so-called no-knock warrant looking for drugs, which they did not find. The next day, the first death in New York City due to the coronavirus was confirmed. On Monday, New York City schools were closed. By the following weekend, a hundred had died and the city entered lockdown.
As I write, protestors are being beaten; a new fence is ‘protecting’ the White House; and we are months into a viral pandemic with no end in view.
The rest of March, April, and May were a blur of supermarket shortages and new sanitary protocols. Meanwhile I again rescheduled the essay deadline with Places’ patient editors, settling on Monday May 25. As I sat in front of my computer on the evening it was due, trying yet again to write, George Floyd was being murdered on a Minneapolis street by a White police officer named Derek Chauvin. In the days that followed, the country has been convulsed by the largest protests since the 1960s, as hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in thousands of cities and towns across the country to condemn police brutality and systemic racism. Although these protests have on rare occasion involved violence and looting, the overwhelming majority have been impressively peaceful, especially given their large size and the toxic political atmosphere in which they are being held, where law abiding citizens are labeled thugs and threatened with military violence for exercising their First Amendment rights. The grotesquely cruel administration of Donald Trump has deliberately exacerbated the situation at virtually every turn. As I write, protestors around the country are being beaten and gassed; a large new fence is “protecting” the White House; and retired soldiers, including generals, are coming forward to condemn the actions of the administration as an anti-constitutional threat to the republic. Months into a viral pandemic with no clear end in view, there have been more than 32,000 deaths from Covid-19 here in New York City, more than 170,000 in the United States, and almost 800,000 worldwide.
A system is not imagined. I’ve thought of Haacke’s words often as I’ve worked, haltingly, on this text across these last few interminable months. Its changing form has similarly been a function of its relationship to its environment — of its contingency to our newsfeeds and to a system of interdependent processes. Of course, this has been the case with everything I’ve ever written. But our present moment is acutely clarifying. One of the effects of the interlocking crises has been to underscore the myriad structures in which we are every day enmeshed. In quieter times, these often fade into the background hum of daily experience. But now it’s become abundantly clear that this sort of quotidian calm is inevitably a function of privilege. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to understand these systems as anything less than comprehensively real.
If I have been uncharacteristically personal and granular here, it is because I wish to insist on specificity; a specificity which is criminally absent in this nation’s post-truth political briefings on the pandemic, and crucially present in the placards and banners carried by countless peaceful protestors demanding that we say the names of the victims. This is the sort of specificity that Haacke’s work provides, and in turn demands.
Today Haacke’s works seem a manifesto-like testament to the absolute authenticity of systems of money and power.
In my first draft, I described the experience of the exhibition as “relentless.” With six decades worth of objects, images, and texts, all accompanied by didactic explanations penned by Haacke, a tour of the show felt almost like a walkthrough with the artist himself, a phantasmal figure always ready to supply more information to the already information-rich artworks. His commitment to specificity is evident in works that document the precise birthplaces and residences of more than 2,000 visitors to a 1969 gallery show in Manhattan; the responses of more than 37,000 MoMA exhibition-goers to a question about New York State Governor (and MoMA trustee) Nelson Rockefeller’s position on America’s 1970 bombing of Cambodia; and the addresses and photographs of all 142 New York City tenement properties managed by the notorious slumlord Harry Shapolsky. Once such projects might have seemed dogged almost to a fault; today they seem a manifesto-like testament to the absolute authenticity of systems of money and power. They are a witnessing; a catalyzing record of the real.
It was this last project — Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 — that infamously led the Guggenheim to cancel a major Haacke exhibition in 1971; museum director Thomas Messer argued that its political content was incompatible with the cultural mission of an art museum. As the New York Times reported, Messer explained his decision in a letter to Haacke:
“A muckraking venture under the auspices of the Solomon. R. Guggenheim Foundation … raises serious questions,” since the museum’s charter directed it toward “esthetic and educational objectives that are self-sufficient and without ulterior motive. On those grounds, the trustees have established policies that exclude active engagement toward social and political ends.” [Messer] also observed that “art may have social and political consequences but these, we believe, are furthered by indirection and by the generalized, exemplary force that works of art may exert upon the environment, not, as you propose, by using political means to achieve political ends, no matter how desirable these may appear to be in themselves.” 2
The Guggenheim’s refusal to mount the show turned Haacke’s “muckraking venture” into a two-fold example of institutional critique, avant le lettre. Haacke sought to bring the squalid realities of the city’s notorious housing market inside the Guggenheim’s grand Fifth Avenue edifice; the museum’s disdainful response exposed it as complicit in that shabby system. Years later, asked by the art historian Yves-Alain Bois if the museum’s response might have been different in 1975 — that is, after the fall of Saigon — Haacke replied:
I think I wouldn’t have received as much support. As soon as the Vietnam War was over and the draft abolished, everyone relaxed and thought, “Well, now we can go home, the fight is over.” People withdrew into their private worlds. This is the political vacuum which was then filled by the Right. We have to live with it today. 3
The project of name-saying — doing the hard and often tedious work of detailed particularization in order to reverse, or at least forestall, the disappearance of facts from social and cultural memory — runs in a deep vein through Haacke’s work. Three years after Shapolsky et al. and the cancelled Guggenheim show, he created Solomon R. Guggenheim Board of Trustees, which consists of seven text panels that list the names and frequently intertwined business affiliations of every member of the museum’s board. Unlike Shapolsky, this project does not start with the premise that the individual trustees have acted illegally or even unethically; which is not to say that some viewers might not have paused at the panel detailing the business of the Kennecott Copper Corporation, on whose board several Guggenheim trustees served, and pondered the connection between the nationalization of its mining operation in Chile by the country’s socialist president Salvador Allende, and Allende’s subsequent overthrow (and suicide) following a right-wing coup d’etat backed by the CIA. Guggenheim Board of Trustees provokes a curious frisson.
The straightforward and unadorned gesture of inventorying — of entering the trustees and their business affairs into the record, as it were — threatens to breach the zone of ambient impunity within which the privileged and powerful typically operate. The New Museum retrospective did not include Manet-PROJEKT ’74, a well-known investigatory critique that traced the provenance of Manet’s 1880 A Bunch of Asparagus to a Nazi financier 4; but it did show Seurat’s “Les Poseuses” (small version), 1888–1975, a conceptually kindred project that traces the ownership history of the post-Impressionist painting from its creation to its acquisition by Artemis S.A., a Luxembourg-based art investment group.
Such works do not look and feel much like the earlier, environmentally conscious pieces, including Large Condensation Cube, 1963–67; Sphere in Oblique Air Jet, 1964/2011; Blue Sail, 1964–65; and Ice Stick, all of which explore the interactions of materials with atmospheric forces. Yet they are rooted in the same philosophy, a worldview vividly articulated by the critic Jack Burnham, who was a friend of Haacke. “We are now in a transition from an object-oriented to a systems-oriented culture,” he wrote.
Here change emanates, not from things, but from the way things are done. The priorities of the present age revolve around the problems of organization. A systems viewpoint is focused on the creation of stable, on-going relationships between organic and non-organic systems be these neighborhoods, industrial complexes, farms, transportation systems, information centers, recreation centers, or any of the other matrixes of human activity. 5
Haacke recognized that Burnham was describing the impulse that drove the early assays of his own developing practice. 6 And though his early focus on environmental concerns would not necessarily carry forward into his later works, Haacke’s close attention to “the way things are done” has remained central to his practice, in which the art world itself — and the individuals and institutions that constitute it — is scrutinized as a matrix “of human activity.”
In his new book What Comes after Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle, Hal Foster considers the etymology of the word he has chosen to describe our current moment.
Debacle derives from the French, for “downfall, collapse, disaster,” but its root is débâcler, “to free,” from the Middle French desbacler “to unbar,” and its literal meaning is “the breaking up of ice on a river” as in a flood in spring. A debacle is thus a sudden release of force, usually for the bad but possibly for the good. “Debacle” might even point to a dialectic of breaking and making otherwise, with regard to conventions, institutions, and laws alike. Such is the opportunity in the current period of political upheaval: to transform disruptive emergency into structural change, or at least to pressure the cracks in the social order where power can be resisted and reworked. 7
It is fitting that Hans Haacke: All Connected appeared at this fraught moment when cultural institutions and their leadership and governance are the object of increasingly intense critical scrutiny. A highly visible series of protests organized by artist Nan Goldin and her group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) successfully pressured leading museums, including the Guggenheim, Tate, Louvre, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, to refuse further donations from the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma who’ve made billions from manufacturing and marketing the highly addictive opioid OxyContin. Meanwhile, nine weeks of protests by the activist group Decolonize This Place forced the resignation of Warren B. Kanders, vice board chair of the Whitney Museum, whose company Safariland manufactured crowd-suppression products, including tear gas, that have been used against asylum seekers along the U.S./Mexico border as well as against protestors in Puerto Rico and Ferguson, Missouri. 8
Activist artists are now breaching the boundaries that long obscured the unsavory sources of cultural philanthropy.
Decolonize This Place coordinated its actions to take place during last year’s Whitney Biennial, to which the London-based Forensic Architecture, led by Eyal Weizman, had contributed Triple Chaser, a video depicting the deployment of Safariland tear gas at sites ranging from Tijuana to Bethlehem. The commitment of groups like P.A.I.N., Decolonize This Place, and Forensic Architecture to the painstakingly specific articulation of facts and actions that would otherwise remain hidden, using tools as sophisticated as computer reconstruction and as old-school as banners and marches, owes much to Haacke. Their “radius of action,” to use Haacke’s phrase, refuses to recognize as a barrier the threshold of the institution, of the “art world”; rather it encourages the same contravention of longstanding boundaries and protocols that so often served to obscure the unsavory sources of cultural philanthropy.
The performance artist Andrea Fraser, three decades younger than Haacke and a crucial figure in the further refinement of the modes of institutional critique he pioneered, wrote in 2005:
The fact that we are trapped in our field does not mean that we have no effect on, and are not affected by, what takes place beyond its boundaries. Once again, Haacke may have been the first to understand and represent the full extent of the interplay between what is inside and outside the field of art. … Haacke engaged the “institution” as a network of social and economic relationships, making visible the complicities among the apparently opposed spheres of art, the state, and corporations. It may be Haacke, above all, who evokes characterizations of the institutional critic as an heroic challenger, fearlessly speaking truth to power — and justifiably so, as his work has been subject to vandalism, censorship, and parliamentary showdowns. However, anyone familiar with his work should recognize that, far from trying to tear down the museum, Haacke’s project has been an attempt to defend the institution of art from instrumentalization by political and economic interests. 9
What Fraser is here describing — Haacke’s awareness of contingency and of the thoroughgoing realness of systems both visible and invisible — is precisely what makes his work such a singular model for the great collective work of pressuring those cracks in the status quo where the remaking of our world can start. The twinned crises of public health and social justice have made it painfully clear that the unhappy status quo will persist as long as we remain complacent, willing to euphemize difficult facts and ignore thorny realities. “You make symbolic machines that function like snares and make the public act”: this is how the philosopher Pierre Bourdieu described Haacke’s work, in a 1995 conversation with the artist. 10 A public lulled into unthinking complicity by deep corruption and pervasive disinformation can be an elusive quarry, even for the sophisticated traps that Hans Haacke has been setting for half a century. Which makes the artist’s symbolic machines all the more crucial, in this time of debacle.