Nato Thompson is artistic director of Philadelphia Contemporary, a new nomadic organization with plans to build a permanent home. He began his curatorial career at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams. From 2007 until this past November he worked, first as a curator and then as artistic director, at Creative Time, a socially minded public art enterprise in New York. He is the author of several books including Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life (2017) and Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century (2015).
Avram Finkelstein is an artist and writer who was a founding member of Silence=Death and Gran Fury, collectives that were instrumental in the early years of AIDS activism. His new book, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images, was published by the University of California Press in November. The book revisits stories related to the benefits and challenges of collective action.
ARTnews convened with Thompson and Finkelstein for dinner at Great Jones Café, a homespun eatery in New York’s East Village that has been open since 1983, across the street from where Jean-Michel Basquiat worked until his death in 1988. For Thompson, gumbo and a martini; for Finkelstein, mac and cheese with cornbread and a beer. —Andy Battaglia
ARTnews: When did you two first cross paths?
Avram Finkelstein: We were introduced by Helen Molesworth, who did one of the first exhibitions of ACT UP and AIDS agitprop. I was on a panel with Robert Vazquez-Pacheco from Gran Fury, and Robert loves to tease me about my thwarted attempt in the ’80s to dye every fountain in Washington, D.C., red. I found dye and did logistics—I was really in deep with it. But I couldn’t get it to look enough like blood. I was talking to Helen about this idea, and she said, “Well, the bravest curator I know is Nato Thompson. You should speak to him.” So we had a conversation about whether it might be possible to get anyone to agree to do a bloody fountain as an AIDS memorial.
Nato Thompson: Now I’m kind of thinking we should do it. The conversation in the country about memorials and monuments is very active.
ARTnews: When and where did each of you first become interested in political or activist art?
Thompson: Collective housing I lived in in Berkeley, California, in the early ’90s. I lived with 88 fellow students, cooperatively. I already had political leanings that for the life of me I can’t figure out; maybe it was that I grew up in a Christian utopian commune in Holland, but I had this kind of do-gooderism in me. In the Bay Area, I was inspired by the lifestyle anarchism that was thriving at the time. Pirate radio, Food Not Bombs. There was a lot of anti-apartheid work happening. It was a blend—not only politics that we spoke about but politics lived. Not representational politics but wake-up-with-it-in-your-breath kind of politics, in an environment where we were all mutating as young 20 year olds together, in a radical space of sexuality and subjectivity.
Finkelstein: That could do it. My parents met at an International Workers Order summer camp, so I’m a red-diaper baby. They were both in the Communist party, and my dad worked with Ethel Rosenberg. I was raised with a political poster rolled up in my hand, and I never saw the world any other way. I never saw my practice any other way. In fact, I stopped making art when I got to college. I was heavy into Situationism, after the Situationists were instrumental in the ’68 strikes [in France]. There were factory workers who walked off the job who had no idea who Guy Debord was, and I saw that as a living, breathing version of the difference between theory and practice. I realized how completely fucked up and institutionally impossible the art world and cultural production was, and I decided to abandon my individual practice. It wasn’t until my first boyfriend died of AIDS in 1984 that I re-invigorated my art practice through collectives. I’ve dedicated my practice to collectivity ever since.
Thompson: When were you reading the Situationists?
Finkelstein: In 1968 I was 16, so I was too young to know who they were. But I wasn’t too young to be active. The town I was raised in was originally a Quaker settlement, and my drug connections were at Friends World College. It was actually Bonnie Raitt’s brother, Steve Raitt, who had just come back from the strikes with a handful of posters. I was waiting for friends and he said, “I want to introduce you to the demonstrations in New York—do you want to come?” That’s how I learned to silk-screen. My first job was silk-screening strike T-shirts. Later, in college, I found out who the Situationists were.
Thompson: My roommate was an artist—my best friend, Trevor Paglen—and we dropped out of Berkeley and moved to Turkey because his father had a little cabin there. Trevor’s mother gave us Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, and it changed my life. It was a space where punk rock and radical politics and art all found a peculiar marriage. I had this kind of art/politics divide going on inside of me, where I was like, “there’s activism, and there’s this art stuff—but I don’t know what to do with it all.”
Finkelstein: It seems like your trajectory enabled you to visualize an art world that could be different. I had given up on that, and then I came in through the back door with Silence=Death and Gran Fury. All of a sudden I was in the art world again. It was a source of some tension in the collective—how tense I was about it.
ARTnews: What were the sources of that tension?
Finkelstein: I didn’t want to do any art world commissions.
Thompson: You felt like it would be either co-opting or trying to sink its capitalist teeth into what you were up to?
Finkelstein: Absolutely. It sounds disingenuous if you’re not me or don’t know anything about me or the AIDS crisis. But in the collective, there were people who thought I was doctrinaire, which I was. [Laughs] But hegemony is based on Western European culture, and everything that touches on institutional art is attached to that. I had a funny moment at an event recently, when Dread Scott was interviewing Tania Bruguera at the opening of “Agitprop!” at the Brooklyn Museum. She said something that stopped me: “It’s up to us as artists—it’s our responsibility—to change the art world from inside.” It was the first time I had a crisis of confidence and thought, “You know what, she’s probably right.” It sent me into a personal crisis for three months until I remembered that every art institution in the world has holdings whose value will outpace any programming they could ever do that is socially conscious. We’ll always be outpaced by the value of the holdings, which influences real estate and so on. Displacement, gentrification, racism—everything borders on this institutional reality.
Thompson: In my time, the art world has been far more malleable. It wasn’t that long ago when people were like, “if you’re not in the Whitney Biennial, forget about it.” That is not the case today. The gatekeepers are not as fixed, and the arbiters of taste are much more decentralized. It’s a bit of a free-for-all. I feel we’re in a Wild West moment in the arts. But a lot of things that the arts actively do have been borrowed by the mass-marketing industry starting 60 years ago, and cultural production has been scaled up at such a profound level.
ARTnews: Nato, in your book Seeing Power, you compare the encroachment of business into culture to global warming, and write “the particles of this vast economy have drifted into our work, behaviors, expectations, and emotions.”
Finkelstein: Into our pockets, for fuck’s sake. [Pulls out iPhone]
Thompson: It’s true that culture is capitalist-driven. But it’s porous. The beautiful thing is, we don’t have to contend with the art world if we don’t want to. Museum structures can be useful. But the real battle for groups like Gran Fury was about the broader cultural sphere. Like, right now, Donald Trump is an art project. Cultural mythology is the language of everyday life.
ARTnews: In what way is Trump an art project?
Thompson: Well, if one defines an art project—this might not be an accurate way—as the deployment of affect and the use of symbols to produce a certain kind of reaction, that is entirely Donald Trump.
Finkelstein: Watching the punditocracy walk into walls trying to figure out Donald Trump is really weird. He has more in common with Kim Kardashian than Paul Ryan, and we know exactly how he got here. In fact, we put him here. It’s nowhere near as complicated as we pretend it is. Trump is pure id, and social spaces are id-driven. We prefer not to think of them that way, but so much of the work that deploys advertising vernacular draws on desire as a
motivating force. For Silence=Death, the ways in which we pulled apart political agency during an apolitical moment—all of that has to do with primal questions. There are more similarities between the way the Silence=Death posters functioned and Donald Trump than any of us would feel comfortable with. What Silence=Death shows us is what those strategies look like when they’re divorced from the motivation of capital.
ARTnews: There’s an early poster of yours in the Whitney Museum exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest,” with the words “Enjoy AZT” displayed in the fashion of an ad for Coca-Cola.
Finkelstein: Gran Fury had only just formed, and there were people in the collective who felt very squeamish about the idea that we would be pulling apart the only drug approved for people living with HIV. [AZT was the first such drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration, in 1987.] So I took it to a longtime collaborator, Vince Gagliostro. The poster isn’t taking a potshot at the idea of pharmaceutical intervention—it’s a description of the mechanisms of capital at work in health care. In that regard, it was ahead of its time.
ARTnews: Your early work was anonymous. How was that useful?
Finkelstein: Silence=Death was a political collective I formed with five of my friends, and it was a full year before ACT UP that we began to design the Silence=Death poster. I brought the idea of that poster to the collective because it was in my genetic makeup to remember that, when young people needed to talk or communicate ideas that weren’t being spoken about in mainstream media, we used the streets of New York. So we made a poster. I made us anonymous because I conceived of it as the first of a series of posters that could potentially cause a riot in the ’88 election. Within weeks of the posters going up, ACT UP formed, so we did not go on to do that. But the reason we were anonymous was that I wanted to instigate riots about HIV.
Thompson: In the ’80s, there was also the looming specter of the art world becoming professionalized, and there must have been certain tensions within groups embraced by institutionality. Did people in the group have misgivings about keeping it real?
Finkelstein: There were tensions in most collectives. Bill Olander at the New Museum had seen the poster and wanted to offer the window of the museum to ACT UP. I said, “I don’t want any part of it.”
Thompson: For a red-diaper baby who grew up with Situationism, an invitation from a museum must have been strange.
Finkelstein: And this was the New Museum—of all the institutions in the world, the one you would critique least. But I was afraid that, with cultural acknowledgment surrounding HIV/AIDS, people in certain circles would begin to talk about it in a way that would enable people outside those circles to say, “Oh, thank God, something’s being done about AIDS—now I don’t have to do anything.” The history of AIDS is very much related to the stories that capitalism likes to tell itself about itself.
ARTnews: Nato, as a curator, how do you reconcile a radical upstart spirit with institutionality?
Thompson: When I first got into the arts I was paranoid that I was selling out. When I went to MASS MoCA, I thought, Do I have to do this “art world” thing? But they gave me space, and I became more encouraged. I got to figure out you can pick your tribe and do your thing. I knew my history—I knew the groups that inspired me—and I wanted to pick up that thread. To me, that’s not ancillary—I feel it’s central to the art world. I’ve always been vocal that I consciously use the art world’s social capital against the art world.
ARTnews: How has resistance work changed so far in the Trump era?
Finkelstein: I consider myself a propagandist. A lot of times the color drains out of peoples’ faces when I say that because the idea of propaganda seems to support power structures, and people who do resistance work or cultural production don’t like to think of themselves that way. But I feel that digital natives know exactly what this new terrain is. The old guard has not caught up. Even after a decade of relational aesthetics and egalitarian petting zoos that every institution likes to stage to replicate the idea of democracy inside institutional settings . . .
ARTnews: Egalitarian petting zoos?
Finkelstein: Like Carsten Höller’s “Experience” (2011) at the New Museum or “Paweł Althamer: The Neighbors” (2014), when the same museum invited groups to come in and paint on the walls. They weren’t really the walls of the museum—they were removed when the show was over, so it was a curated idea of a social space. That’s an egalitarian petting zoo.
ARTnews: What would be more effective?
Finkelstein: The language used to discuss social movements is also the language of capital. The first question people want to ask is: “Will the resistance work? Is it going to last?” That’s what happened with ACT UP. Every story has to have an arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end of a movement is written into the beginning of a movement. That’s part of the way capitalism functions. I think you have to reject that. You have to look through conversations about where intersectionality will and won’t work. One way to look at Trump is as the beginning of the end, a dying gasp. So, what’s the next move? What’s the thing we can do to fuck with them that they haven’t thought of yet, and how far will that get us? For every Gran Fury move that made it into a book or a museum, there was a Gran Fury failure. We made a lot of bad moves, and so did Silence=Death. Every cultural producer makes mistakes.
ARTnews: In your book, you compare Trump’s election to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and write about how America has joined the global march of proto-fascism. Is our current political moment somehow unique?
Finkelstein: I think it’s unlike any other moment in history. We’re talking about a change in our social spaces, a fundamental change in the way we communicate. The most important thing is what’s happening with Facebook and Twitter. We’re learning about the uses of social space now. That is the most meaningful thing that happened as a result of this election.
Thompson: We have this schizophrenic mode where everything is either crashing down or we have hope. I think the biggest fight is taking the Democratic party away from the neoliberals. Right now, we live in a moment when New York and Chicago and L.A. are patting themselves on the back for being the most progressive cities, but in fact, it’s the same people who are holding the purse strings to the agenda. It’s not just Trump. Inverting that narrative is where the work is. And then, the fun thing about the art world is that we’re going to brush shoulders with all of them. [Laughs]
Finkelstein: Everything that came into office with Trump has been going on in America for decades. Gerrymandering, the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, the building of the prison industrial complex—Trump didn’t do any of that. But now we’re talking about it. I don’t have a fantasy about “the end.” I think of progress as a spiral: it goes forward, some things never get undone, some things do. You slip in there when their guard is down and take what you need, and then run back to cover and figure out what to do next. You can never not be involved. It is never over.
ARTnews: Are traditional forms of protest—like marching and waving signs—right for our times?
Thompson: You’re never going to take away mass protest, because people who are disempowered are never going to find community in the media sphere. So we have to meet each other in the streets. You’re not going to stop neoliberalism with a march, but you are going to meet people. You’re going to know you’re not alone. Embodiment will never not be important. Also, this is the first time in my political experience I’ve seen so many people taking the vote seriously. I grew up with everyone being like, “it’s all corrupt, don’t even bother.” Now there’s interest in a radical taking over of the electoral space, which I’m very invested in.
Finkelstein: Part of me withers and thinks go with God, organize at the state level. But the propagandist in me—if I had to choose a model, it would be the Yippies. That’s what my idea of social engagement is: a mix of anarchism, humor, petty theft, and the cockroach mentality of survival. Do anything you need to do to get through the moment. I’m also rereading Marshall McLuhan. I didn’t take him seriously at the time, but I’m rethinking everything that he wrote now. There are lessons in there.
ARTnews: Are artists and institutions agile enough to change the culture right now? Can they be as influential as, say, sports stars?
Finkelstein: It depends on how agile our practices are able to be in a world determined by displacement, gentrification, and inequality. How agile can an artist be? The artists I know are pretty fucking agile and are doing kick-ass work. I think it’s a false equivalency—what we should be saying is, “How great is it that Trump is making everyone pay attention so that people in the sports industry are protesting?” Maybe we can be OK with the fact that relational aesthetics or social practices might take a back seat for a minute.
Thompson: You can’t have Colin Kaepernick without Black Lives Matter. And a lot of the people who organized Occupy Wall Street came out of a space called 16 Beaver, which had Whitney Independent Study Program grads. They were looking at Spanish anarchism and different models. It’s been my experience that you don’t have to stretch too far into a social movement to find . . . —it’s funny, most people I know who are culturally savvy provocateurs would be hesitant to refer to themselves as “artists.” But they are artists!
Finkelstein: I think the idea that there could be a social mosh pit that nobody could exactly describe or curate is excruciating for people in the art world and people invested in the ways we describe cultural production.
Thompson: Social mosh pit, I like that.
Finkelstein: How great is it that we live in that world?
ARTnews: Better that than an egalitarian petting zoo.
Finkelstein: Hands down. I did a talk right after the Women’s March and said it was great that millions of people showed up for that. There should be marches and everyone should go to them. But imagine those millions of people broken into affinity groups of five, doing things that we’d never hear about, on an ongoing basis. There are other ways to be empowered, and all of those ways are valid.
Thompson: When you were doing ACT UP, you must have gotten pressure from practical Democrats who were like, “America will never embrace a queer agenda—you need to tone it down.” This is what Black Lives Matter gets now: “America is not ready to embrace a radical black agenda. Can you please for the sake of an emerging left in America tone it down and get on board?”
Finkelstein: “Go fuck yourself” is the only response to that.
Thompson: I want to be all “kumbaya” with an emerging left, but when I see who the speakers are, I can’t swallow the pill sometimes. I got into this whole arts thing because I wanted to get the world I want—a radical world.
Finkelstein: I think we’re also in a listening moment, which is helpful for people who feel power is slipping away from them. The closer you are to any kind of institutional privilege, the more freaked out you are by what happened with Trump. The further away you are from power, the less surprised you are. Now is a listening moment and a paying-attention moment—it might not be an activist moment.
ARTnews: Nato, the 2017 Creative Time project “Pledges of Allegiance” centers on protest flags by 16 artists. I know you hoped you could get other institutions on board . . .
Thompson: The dream was that it would be this call to solidarity. A lot of mid-level nonprofits in areas of the country that feel like they need to be connected to a larger arts community have gotten on board. It works in that sense, to build community. The bigger institutions were like, as you can imagine, “We’re all booked up, no extra headspace.” It’s tricky.
ARTnews: Does that speak to the issue of institutional agility?
Thompson: It’s easy to be against Trump. He’s an easy target, so institutions are not going to offend many of their funders. Everyone can feel progressive. But it’s a bind, with enormous buckets of money to raise. Inertia is within every institution, and staying clear of it takes special personalities and forces. But it’s interesting: there’s a lot of young radical culture that is eager to dismantle everything. With the Dana Schutz controversy, what I found fascinating was, there was a generational divide around the value of our contemporary art institutions. You had Kara Walker, Charles Gaines, and Coco Fusco weigh in, and they were like, “Calm down, young ones—it’s complex. Be careful because your language can easily be owned by the right wing.” But then a lot of young people were like, “burn it all down—I don’t care.” When you were in ACT UP, did you want to burn it all down?
Finkelstein: Oh, yeah. In my circles people were talking about body bombs and assassination. That’s not the squishy ACT UP that you hear about in the history of social movements, but it was there. But the question is strategy. I’m a propagandist, so all I think about is strategy. I think of social engagement the way a lifer thinks about it. I’m happy to talk on NPR about the efficacy of resistance. But I’m actually not that interested in that, because I think resistance is something I’m always looking at. You’re either in the resistance and always have been, or you’re not. The rest is secondary. I feel like we’re in a potentially radicalizing moment. I don’t feel like the world is about to end, because the things that I’m most freaked out about were going on for the entire 20th century and back into the 19th. The only reason we don’t know about them from earlier is because there were fewer printing presses.
Thompson: We just did this Creative Time Summit with predominantly women and indigenous artists. It was morose, but it was also sobering in the sense that there was a sentiment like, “calm down, shit’s been fucked up for a long time. Take a number.”
Finkelstein: When ACT UP began to do coalition work and we would work with communities of color, it was very hard to hear people say, “AIDS is just one of the many ways that people of color die, so take a number.” It was a real teaching moment. We realized what our movement was and wasn’t, what it could be and couldn’t be. That’s what coalition work at its best is about—doing what you can do. I’m very conscious of not wanting to colonize people in communities of color who are doing amazing work. There’s a fine line between gatekeeping and approval and alliance. So, this is also a moment for people who are privileged to shut the fuck up and listen.
ARTnews: How do you feel about the future?
Thompson: I have hope. We’re going to see a lot of changes in the arts in the next four or five years. Trump is consequential psychologically, but it takes a while for that to catch up. When President George W. Bush came in, it took a while for art to twist its head around. And then there was this different mode that shifted into gear in reaction to Guantánamo, the Patriot Act, and more. There is going to be a moment, years from now, when you look and say, “This is a very different art world.”
Finkelstein: I think you’re right about that. We’re in a gestation period. Everyone called me with burning thoughts after the election, and I was surprised to see all these smart people I know surprised over what happened, when it seemed perfectly clear. I’m not saying I don’t have moments of sheer panic. I knew that people wanted me dead in Reagan’s America, but they wanted me dead because I was gay—not because I was a Jew. But what’s happening has been happening right in front of our eyes. I’m not sure why people are surprised. There are plenty of people who are not surprised, and they are the people I’m paying the most attention to.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “Nato Thompson & Avram Finkelstein.”