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BAM/PFA Management Forces Resignation of Curator Chris Gilbert Over Venezuelan Exhibit
by Labor Video Project (lvpsf [at]
Tuesday May 23rd, 2006 9:12 AM
BAM/PFA management have forced the resignation of Matrix Curator Chris Gilbert who has
recently curated a powerful exhibition on the struggle of Venezuelan workers and alternative
BAM/PFA Management Forces Resignation of Curator Chris Gilbert Over Venezuelan Exhibit

Chris Gilbert - statement on resigning 5/21/06

I made the decision to resign as Matrix Curator on April 28, but my struggles with the Berkeley Art Musuem/Pacific Film Archives over the content and approach of the projects in the exhibition cycle "Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process" go back quite a few months. In particular the museum administrators -- meaning the deputy directors and senior curator collaborating, of course, with the public relations and audience development staff -- have for some time been insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary solidarity, out of the cycle. For some months, they have said they wanted "neutrality" and "balance" whereas I have always said that instead my approach is about commitment, support, and alignment -- in brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.

I have always successfully resisted the museum's attempts to interfere with the projects (and you will see that the ideas of alignment, support, and revolutionary solidarity are written all over the "Now-Time" projects part 1 & part 2 -- they are present in all the texts I have generated and as a consequence in almost all of the reviews). In the museum's most recent attempt to alter things, the one that precipitated my resignation, they proposed to remove the offending concept from the Now-Time Part 2 introductory text panel (a panel which had already gone to the printer). Their plan was to replace the phrase "in solidarity" with revolutionary Venezuela with a phrase like "concerning" revolutionary Venezuela -- or another phrase describing a relation that would not be explicitly one of solidarity.

I threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition, since, first of all, revolutionary solidarity is what I believe in -- the essential concept in the "Now-Time" project cycle -- but secondly it is obviously unfair to invite participants such as Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler or groups such as Catia TVe to a project that has one character (revolutionary solidarity) and then change the rules of the game on them a few weeks before the show opens (so that they become mere objects of examination or investigation). At first, my threat to resign and terminate the show availed nothing. Then on April 28, I wrote a letter stating that I was in fact resigning and my last day of work would be two weeks from that day, which was May 12, two days before the "Now-Time Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia" opening. I assured them that the show could not go forward without me. In response to this decisive action -- and surely out of fear that the show which had already been published in the members magazine would not happen -- the institution restored my text panel to the way I had written it. Having won that battle, though at the price of losing my position, I decided to go forward with the show, my last one.

One thing that should make evident how extreme and erratic the museum's actions were is that the very same sentence that was found offensive ("a project in solidarity with the revolutionary process in contemporary Venezuela") is the exact sentence that is used for the first Now-Time Venezuela exhibition text panel that still hangs in the Matrix gallery upstairs. That show is on view for one more week as I write.

The details of all this are important though, of course, its general outlines, which play out the familiar patterns of class struggle, are of greater interest. The class interests represented by the museum, which are above all the interests of the bourgeoisie that funds it, have two (related) things to fear from a project like mine: (1) of course, revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the US government and the capitalist class that benefits from that government's policies, just as Cuba is a symbolic threat, just as Nicaragua was, and just as is any country that tries to set its house in order in a way that is different from the ideas of Washington and London -- which is primarily to say Washington and London's insistence that there is no alternative to capitalism.

I must emphasize that the threat is only symbolic; in the eyes of the US government and the US bourgeoisie, it sets a "bad" and dangerous example of disobedience for other countries to follow, but of course the idea that such examples represent a military threat to the US (would that it were the case) is simply laughable; (2) the second threat, which is probably the more operational one in the museum context, is that much of the community is in favor of the "Now-Time" projects -- the response to the first exhibition is enormous and the interest in the second is also very high. That response and interest exposes the fact that the museum, the bourgeois values it promotes via the institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the past 30 years is really in most respects simply the cultural arm of upper-class power) are not really those of any class but its own. Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will always deny the role of class interests in this: they will always maintain that the kinds of cultural production they promote are more difficult, smarter, more sophisticated -- hence the lack of response to most contemporary art is, according to them, about differences in education and sophistication rather than class interest. That this kind of claim is obscurantist and absurd is something the present exhibitions make very clear: the work of Catia TVe, which is created by people in the popular (working-class) neighborhoods of Caracas, is far more sophisticated than what comes out of the contemporary art of the Global North. The same could be said for the ideas discussed by the Venezuelan factory workers in the Ressler and Azzellini film that is shown Now-Time Part 1. (Of course, it is not because these works and the thoughts in them are more sophisticated that we should attend to them; what I am saying is simply that it is clearly an evasion and false to dismiss anti-bourgeois cultural production -- work that aligns with the interests of working class people -- on grounds of its being unsophisticated.)

To return to the museum: I believe that the enormous response to the "Now-Time" cycle -- there were 180 visitors to the March 26 panel discussion that opened "Now-Time" part 1 and if you google "Now-Time Venezuela" you get over 700 hits -- put the class interests that stand by and promote contemporary art in danger, exposed them a bit. I suppose some concern about this may have given a special edge to the museum's failed efforts to alter my projects.

I think it is important to be clear about the facts that precipitated my resignation: that is, the struggle over the wording of the text panel, which fit into months of struggle over the question of solidarity and alignment with a revolutionary political agenda. That issue is discussed above. However, it is also important to understand the context. Again, it is too weak to say that museums, like universities, are deeply corrupt. They are. (And in my view the key points to discuss regarding this corruption are (1) the museum's claim to represent the public's interests when in fact serving upper-class interests and parading a carefully constructed surrogate image of the public; (2) the presence of intra-institutional press and marketing departments that really operate to hold a political line through various control techniques, only one of which is censorship; finally (3) the presence of development departments that, in mostly hidden ways, favor and flatter rich funders, giving the lie to even the sham notion of public responsibility that the museum parades). However, to describe museums and other cultural institutions as simply if deeply corrupt is, as I said, too weak in that it both holds out the promise of their reform and it ignores the larger imperialist structures that make their corruption an inevitable upshot and reflection of the exploitive political and social system of which they form a part. Such institutions will go on reflecting imperialist capitalist values, will celebrate private property and deny social solidarity, and will maintain a strict silence about the control of populations at home and the destruction of populations abroad in the name of profit, until that imperialist system is dismantled. Importantly, it will not be dismantled by cultural efforts alone: a successful reform of a cultural institution here or there would at best result in "islands" of sanity that would most likely operate in a negative way -- as imaginary and misleading "proof" that conditions are not as bad as they are.

In fact, with conditions as they are, a different strategy is required: there should be disobedience at all levels; disruptions and explosions of the kind that I, together with a small group of allies inside the museum, have created are also useful on a symbolic level. However, the primary struggle and the only struggle that will result in a significant change would be one that works directly to transform the economic and political base. This would be a struggle aiming to bring down the US government and its imperialist system through highly organized efforts.

We live in the midst of a fascist imperialism -- there is no other way to describe the system that the US has created and that exercises such control through terror over populations both inside and outside. History has shown that to make "deals" or "compromises" with fascism avails nothing. Instead a radical and daily intransigence is required. Fascism operates to destroy life. It installs and operates on the logic of the camp on all levels, including culture. In the face of that logic, which holds life as nothing, compromises and deals at best buy time for the aggressor and symbolic capital for the aggressor. One should have no illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.

Chris Gilbert

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by podp
Wednesday May 24th, 2006 2:29 PM
I just got this news from Oliver Ressler , an Austrian artist in the show and was about to post it, but saw u beat me to it! Grazi, podp

This show runs one more week at BAM and would like to see it...
wonder if there's some way by going to show SOLIDARITY for Chris Gilbert.

Maybe signing the guest book condemning Bam/Matrix for the museum's lame actions...
is a start...

any ideas ??

by julieta gonzález
(julieta68 [at] Wednesday May 24th, 2006 3:17 PM
I must say that the BAM's directors finally took a reasonable stance. Mr. Gilbert's "curatorial" endeavour was nothing but blatant and cheap proselytism of the worst kind and no museum should allow it to take place. I agree with some of Mr. Gilbert's statements in regard to American museums representing the interests of the wealthy (Please note that his phony series of exhibitions was financed by Phyllis C. Wattis and Glenn and April Bucksbaum, not precisely poor people). I find it is true, given the outgrageous situation of the art market today. However, that is what art is for, to try to undermine this power by virtue of its potential for critique and undermine the system from within, and I am confident that artists will soon correct the money craze that dominates the art world today. However, Mr. gilbert's position intended to confuse the viewer posing proselytism as art, under the thin veil of "social activism". Personally I suffered from much greater intolerance at the hands of Venezuelan cultural "officers" who even had armed soldiers (remember that this regime is essentially military, not proletarian) search my desk with traned dogs because chávez was coming to the museum the next day and I was not "solidary" with the robolution as we Venezuelans prefer to call it. I even wrote to Mr. Gilbert in shock after i received a press release for this awful series of exhibitions. He says nothing of the fact that the only visible and profound transformation of the country during the revolution takes place only in the fat pockets of high end "revolutionaries" who are even buying chateaux in France.

I strongly encourage Mr. gilbert to leave his country and move to Venezuela, he will surely be welcome there as propagandist general for the cultural revolution (something like Goebbels for the nazis, actually Mr. Gilbert even looks a little bit like him and has something of the fanatical zeal that characterized Mr. Goebbels and others of his ilk).

Good luck to him. And bewoe those who are left there and will probably suffer at the hands of this fanatic zealot.
by podp
Wednesday May 24th, 2006 5:59 PM
As an an artist and journalist , I am certainly interested in all sides of this issue, because I neither know Chris Gilbert nor the museum staff at BAM. But as an artist I can clearly say that it would NOT BE REASONABLE to represent my art under one description and suddenly change it days before an exhibition opens.

And as a journalist I am very intrigued by the manner in which certain powers like to portray the current and fairly elected ( multiple times) government of Venezuela as a dictatorship because they do not like their policies... most likely because they tend to illuminate the fanaticism, idiocy and corruption of nearer regimes pretending to be democracies.

What is completely uninteresting to these issues is whether someone LOOKS like Goebbels.

And from Mr. Gilbert's resignation letter I hardly discern someone who acts like a
fascist ,a murderer, a genocidal maniac, or even a propoganda "artist".

On the contrary it illuminates how difficult it has become to openly present a variety of viewpoints in the spectrum of global politics in the artworld or elsewhere.

by Aaron Aarons
Thursday May 25th, 2006 8:48 PM
julieta gonzález writes:
Mr. gilbert's position intended to confuse the viewer posing proselytism as art, under the thin veil of "social activism".
The viewer watches videos of Venezuelan workers talking about their lives and their work, and the poor viewer is deceived into thinking (s)he's looking at "art", while (s)he's really looking at "proselytism". Wow! How sinister! How devious! And Mr. Gilbert makes the deception even greater by proclaiming his solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution, thus creating a 'thin veil of "social activism"' to hide his bias!!!

Clearly, it took someone of julieta gonzález' brilliance to see through this deception. For another example of such brilliance on her part, see

Lest I forget, Ms. González, you really deserve sympathy for having had your desk smelled by bomb-sniffing dogs! If you had been in the U.S. and Mr. Bush had been about to visit, the Secret Service would merely have asked you politely if you had any weapons or explosives in your desk and would have smiled, said "thank you" and moved on when you assured them that you didn't!

by julieta
(julieta68 [at] Friday May 26th, 2006 8:51 AM
As far as I know, and I am Venezuelan, most of the worker run factories featured in the "art" video by Azellini and Ressler have gone bankrupt of been dismantled by corruption. That is precisely the case of the tomato processing plant. since you do not read the venezuelan press and v headline is not a trustworthy source you probably do not know that. I suggest you go and live there and suffer the robolution and then we'll see. as for my brilliance or not that is not the question here and has nothing to do with the fact that mr. gilbert is a fanatical proselityst. perhaps you should talk about shit chavez' brilliance. My bad english is a lot better than your nonexistent spanish. Oh and please tell the chavistas to pay me back my severance money (they owe me more than 15,000 dollars, it's not much but I am not precisely an oligarch like chávez in his armani suits, lanvin shirts and $ 200,000 patek phillipe watches (what a revolutionary !!!!!!).

by renau
Thursday Jun 15th, 2006 7:24 PM
"chris gilbert is a proselityst"

eisenstein was a proselityst
klutsis was a proselityst
vertov was a proselityst
joris ivens was a proselityst
santiago álvarez was a proselityst
godard was a proselityst
bertolt brecht was a proselityst
john heartfield was a proselityst
walter benjamin was a proselityst

thanks to them all, i am making what you may call "art" - who cares -

thanks to them all - -

larga vida a la revolución venezolana.