Organized by Klaus Biesenbach and Margaret Aldredge, “Zero Tolerance” brings together an international ensemble of artists who investigate conflicts of freedom and control by documenting protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience and other well-established forms of popular political speech. Named for the restrictive policing philosophy whose implementation was pioneered in the 1990s (by NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, among others), the exhibition turns much of the first floor of MoMA PS1 into an archive of art’s engagement with and participation in global resistance to authority—pushing back, as the press release would have it, on a worldwide wave of “draconian laws that restrict the rights of citizens under the guise of improving quality of life.”
In an interview for The Creators Project, an art and culture website, Biesenbach described the impetus for the exhibition: “It feels as if life in . . . Berlin and New York, the two cities I spend most of my life in, are islands in a vast ocean . . . [and that] all of the freedom we have in these two big cities is not necessarily a given.” But in New York, where the median income is a sixth of Biesenbach’s $300,000 salary, the existence of that freedom is questionable. Violence, harassment, forced displacement and fragmentation of black, brown and working-class communities at the hands of the government and the police fundamentally structure New York—home to several of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the country—as much as they do Ferguson, Mo., and other epicenters of antipolice organizing and rebellion. In the analysis done by Rent is Theft, a Brooklyn-based collective, the NYPD’s broken-windows policing facilitates gentrification and represents the extension of “counterinsurgency operations into the daily social lives of the population.” But Biesenbach, again in his own words, “felt it was very important to not be finger pointing,” limiting the already soft curatorial critique to distant countries and distant eras.
I was surprised to find many of the show’s works behind a series of unassuming closed doors, including Mircea Cantor’s The Landscape is Changing (2003), which shows a march of protestors with mirrors rather than placards, and Halil Altindere’s music video Wonderland (2013), in which Romani youth rap against the gentrification of Istanbul that threatens to remove them. It isn’t clear why central placement is given to appearances by Joseph Beuys and ACT UP New York, beyond the star power.
“Zero Tolerance” upholds the politics-happens-anywhere-but-here approach to the display of art about social transformation. And with its globetrotting roster of cities, the show privileges the creativity and knack of the artists over the feel, shape and contemporary relevance of the political currents to which they responded. While the art addresses “concerns specific in place and time,” the space-time of “Zero Tolerance” reliably avoids the here and now, frequently opting for just here (Lorraine O’Grady’s 1983 shots of the Harlem African-American Day Parade in Art Is . . . ), just now (Altindere’s Wonderland) or neither (Andrei Ujicâ and Harun Farocki’s 1992 film Videograms of a Revolution, showing the 1989 Romanian uprising). In the end, “Zero Tolerance” succeeds in presenting works of political, historical and aesthetic value to interested audiences, but it also obscures the ways oppression and resistance shape the present in New York, the United States and the art world itself.