What Have You Got to Say? Returns to Jersey City
By Jon Whiten, with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg
I’m no art expert. But when asked to think of why I’m angry about what’s been going on in our country, images pop into my head.
Photos of torture from Abu Ghraib and the desperation from Katrina captured and deepened my disgust more than anything I simply read.
And so, while image control has become arguably the most important part of professional politics, image dissonance has become one of the strongest tools of those trying to affect change.
What better way, for instance, to lay lie to the idea of ‘spreading democracy to the Middle East’ than by juxtaposing that assertion with an image of bound and hooded naked men stacked into a human pyramid?
Recognizing the long history between art – accidental and created – and political activism, Jersey City’s Mana Fine Arts is hosting the second installment of “What Have You Got To Say?” (WHYGTS).
The show, which opens Sept. 7 and closes on election night, Nov. 7, features 165 works by 75 artists, many of them local. About half of the pieces will be installed in Mana’s physical space, and the rest will be displayed on portable DVD players with headsets.
In a rather self-referential turn, the DVD players will not only include submitted films, but video of the exhibit itself. On Sept. 8, as part of JC Fridays, anyone attending WHYGTS is encouraged to make a statement, read, or perform a song. These “Soap Box Declarations” will be videotaped, and added to the DVD portion of the exhibit.
“I love the democratic process -- shouting, yelling,” explained Meredith Lippman, part of the exhibit’s curatorial team. “The pity is that there’s too much silence.”
“The ‘You’ in the title [of the exhibit] is very important,” she added.
To that end, the curatorial team of Lippman, Garth Kobal, Ev Stone and Stephanie Wright has decided to be known publicly as “Anonymous.”
“The title of the project is ‘What Have You Got to Say?,’ not ‘What do the four of us have to say as curators?,’ Kobal noted. “It’s a more democratic voice.”
The decision to curate anonymously is also a political statement in and of itself. “It’s a curatorial statement about free speech,” said Stone. “It’s not in people’s best interest to put their names [on political art].”
In the fall of 2004, when the first What Have You Got To Say? was shown at Grace Church Van Vorst, the overall mood, the feeling in the air, was very different. We were on edge, and it felt like everything was politicized, but there was a spring of hope running through our conversations, and through the progressive and artistic communities as well.
With that subtext, I viewed the first WHYGTS as a noisy send-off to the Bush administration and the problems they had created or exacerbated. It felt like the artists were addressing an “extraordinary time” – it would only be a matter of weeks before Kerry would win the election, the war would end, and everything else would get back to normal.
Perhaps we were delusional. In the two years since the first WHYGTS was shown, the U.S. has sunk even deeper into the abyss. Many felt that 2004 was the country’s last chance, the last time to make things right.
“Presidential elections are important, but this year’s swing election is probably more critical,” countered Stone. “There are a lot of seats up -- it allows a chance to vote Republicans out. It’s not about waiting every four years. You should have a venue to say that now.”
John Ruddy, a 33-year-old painter featured in the show, had a different take on art’s influence on politics.
“Art can be effectual in shaping public opinion, but I tend to view it more in terms of personal effect,” he said. “What does it do for the individual? Does it provoke thought and lead one to question the nature of our society or that of others?”
‘Artists Are Not Republicans’
The exhibit’s pieces generally reflect progressive politics. When asked why the exhibit leans left, Stone answered, laughing, “Because Republicans don’t make art. Artists are not Republicans.”
“For a Republican to be an artist, they would be an obscene creature,” elaborated Kobal. “They would be living against their best interests.”
However, if you were thinking that all of the pieces in the exhibit must then be partisan agit-prop, you’d be mistaken. Not only do the works reflect a wide variety of themes – from civil liberties, war, and our burgeoning surveillance society to homophobia, religion, and women’s rights; but the exhibit’s pieces seem less like cheap shots and more like fully-developed ideas than in 2004.
Kobal agrees. “The images in the 2004 exhibit were more ‘boot-in-your-face’ than these,” he said.
Ruddy sensed that overall, this year’s version of WHYGTS has been more well-organized and more professional than in 2004, and he welcomed a show that worked on multiple levels of thought and emotion.
“Art designed with the intention of mobilizing people towards a specific action rather than inspiring people to seek introspective and unique opinions seems to me more propaganda than art,” said Ruddy, who is also co-director of RockSoupStudios. “Art is there to shake down the structures by which we live, not to dictate a direction one must or should feel compelled to pursue.”
While the curatorial team said the exhibit was protesting the recent squashing of dissent, it was not a free-for-all. They asked that the submissions communicate with the public in a clear way, and not just offend for the sake of it.
“We could’ve planned an exhibit with shock-value work and gotten kicked out of the space,” explained Lippman. “We wanted it to go up, be seen, and be secure.”
However, at least one artist has expressed frustration with the exhibit, saying that his work was rejected for political reasons.
Joseph II was involved in organizing WHYGTS 2004, and was part of this year’s curatorial team, until a piece titled “Nazinigga” ended that relationship. He claims that, after telling the other curators the title, he was told that Moishe’s Moving would have to approve the content, since they own the Mana space.
“Bottom line is, I don’t get to exhibit,” he said. “It was based on the name; they had never seen the piece.”
Kobal maintains that Joseph II’s piece was not rejected because of its title. “He did not submit the piece as had been requested by the curatorial staff, as per the submission guidelines that were requested of all artists,” he explained.
Joseph II’s work will still be on display for the opening night of WHYGTS. The newly-opened Project 001 Gallery plans to show “Nazinigga.” Project001 is run by the people from RockSoupStudios, including John Ruddy.
While chatting in the new space, Ruddy told me that while he didn’t know what he would do if put in the WHYGTS curators’ position, they would go ahead and show it at Project 001.
He also hinted that they might have a little fun with the controversy. Pointing towards a dark sunken room off to the side of the gallery, Ruddy said: “We could put it up in there and put ‘Caution’ tape all around it.”
Actions Speak Louder?
Quite fittingly, WHYGTS also plans to feature a voter registration table and a food and clothing drive. Compared to the rest of the world, very few people vote in American presidential elections, and even fewer head to the polls for the mid-terms.
“I think it’s one thing to speak out, and another thing to actually do something about it,” explained Stephanie Wright, who headed up the activism part of the exhibit. “The artwork provokes people to think about certain issues. We can help people to do something about some of these things.”
Many artists understandably still feel either apathetic or cynical, or both, about politics in America. It’s certainly no wonder -- politicians, despite their attempts to be “Jane and Joe Six-Packs,” often come off as alien to both struggling and successful artists.
“The presence of this exhibit is to remind people there is an election coming up,” said Kobal. “It’s designed to exist during the campaign battles.”
To view a few more images from the show, click here.
What Have You Got to Say? opens Thursday, Sept. 7, from 6-9 pm, at Mana Fine Arts, 227 Coles St., Jersey City. Soap Box Declarations, as a part of JC Fridays, are Friday, Sept. 8, from 6-9 pm. Visit the Web site for more information.
Joseph II's show, with Peter Bill, opens Thursday, Sept. 7, from 8 pm-midnight, at Project 001 Gallery, 131 Erie St., Jersey City.