Which Side Have You Chosen? A Response to Bruno Latour
by Anna Mikaela Ekstrand
In the early days of the Corona crisis, I strongly felt the intensity of the online art world – viewing rooms, podcasts, article series, and more launching during the first week of quarantine. The most successful initiative engaging both the art world and mainstream audiences in practices of deep looking, but more importantly revising and restaging, was the Getty Challenge with participants across the world recreating artworks.2 Etty Yaniv, an independent publisher, has interviewed over 125 artists on how they are coping during Corona times – some of them are published on my platform Cultbytes.3 The Immigrant Artist Biennial, a project that I am working with, has shifted programming online hosting studio visits on IGLive, and on Zoom, a roundtable on Anti-Asian Racism and an immigration law clinic.4 The online sphere quickly became a place for reflection and communal support but also a more rigorous competition for visibility, one that artists, many who already work with self-promotion to manage their careers, excelled in.
In “What protective measures can you think of so we don’t go back to the pre-crisis production model?”5 Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist urges his readers to sacrifice their opinions to rely on descriptions and research to devise systemic solutions to stifle climate change through his call-to-reflect questionnaire. On March 12th I began writing a response to Latour’s text:6 In America, COVID-19 has provided further magnification and broadcast of racial divides, which has been a hot topic with push back against rampant police violence in recent years, but also class divides – which in the seat of capitalism is not regularly a hot topic. Major companies, like Amazon, are experiencing strikes by their workers, unrelated to unions. In times of crisis, the needs of the people are magnified. Latour and I, and many others, anticipated a shift. We just could not put our finger on what it would be.
Before the four now ex-police officers, Derek Chauvin, Tou Thao, Thomas Lane, and J. Alexander Keung, brutally murdered George Floyd by restraining him, preventing onlookers from intervening, and, the former, pressing a knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during which time he called-out for his mother and uttered the words “I can’t breath.”7 Before the arrests of Gregory and Travis McMichael’s some two months after they fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery, a black man out for a jog. Before these events that would trigger yet another wave of protests against state sanctioned violence against people of color many of us busied ourselves with increased levels of self-care, care for others, and issues of personal finance, while in confinement. Countrywide stay-at-home orders provoked an increased reliance and engagement with government entities, local and state politicians, healthcare providers, or within the American context, insurance providers (or a distancing from them as it were to not override hospitals), Department of Health (for information), and the Department of Labor (to register unemployment) also made these entities more visible in our everyday life. Little did we know that this work would prepare us and offer us tools to carry out the revolution.
In America, the Black Lives Matter movement has urged citizens to look beyond their own experiences to see facts; there is rampant systemic racism that violates black people in this country every day. Activist groups, protestors, influencers, democrats and republicans, politicians – basically people of all races and walks of life, many who normally would not have the time or interest, are all chiming in in solidarity for change. In the art world, influencers, galleries, institutions and the media are highlighting black artists, and some have quickly created grants and financial support for arts education for black people. Anti-racist resources are being widely shared to help institutions shift away from tokenizing to truly become more inclusive.8
Latour’s first question is ‘What are some suspended activities that you would like to see not coming back?’ In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, my answer is: The Police. His second question is why? My answer is: Shifting funding from the police, a racially biased and broken system and the industrial prison complex to education, housing, healthcare and community engagement would help the black population, POC, LGBT community – groups that endure frequent policing aka systemic harassment, murder, and disenfranchising through mass incarceration. Dismantle lobby groups like ALEC that support and are largely funded by companies that profit from mass incarceration. Re-integrate ex-convicts into society by allowing convicts to start and complete degrees and work for minimum wage when they are incarcerated. Create a probation system that supports instead of restrains, and give ex-cons their democratic rights back, the right to vote.
The Prison Policy Initiative estimates an annual cost of $181bn for mass incarceration in America.9 Defunding the police and dismantling the industrial prison complex will leave many out of work. As my response to Latour’s third question:10 superfluous prison guards, police, parole and probation officers who truly care about reform, rehabilitation and community building can be fast tracked into becoming social workers and educators. The rest can be put on Unemployment Insurance (or how about Revolution Unemployment Assistance? RUA) until they find work in other industries. Maybe Elon Musk (not Claire Denis) can find a way for them to explore space?11 The companies that profit from convicts and their families can be allocated federal and state contracts to ideate, create and lobby for environmentally sustainable law-changes (perhaps taxing car and oil production, companies with high carbon footprints, or America’s wealthiest 1%) or just continue selling their goods to other consumers, however, with a mandate to employ at least 70% ex-cons. If they fail or are unwilling, they too can be put on assistance until they find work in other industries.
I believe that the longevity of the current wave of the Black Lives Matter movement has been reliant on the government indirectly funding its supporters and participants. It was fueled by an increased proximity to government entities and officials moderated by the Corona crisis in addition to our lived experiences enduring personal sacrifice to curtail the crisis.
The police murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Breonna Taylor12 have provoked countrywide protests and actions of solidarity, however, none as encompassing as now. With the suspension of local businesses, the ‘closure’ of states and work stop orders, many people are out of work and are eligible to receive between 21 to 39 weeks of benefits.13 40 million Americans are currently enrolled in these financial assistance programs. Without a job to go to and financial assistance (stimulus checks at the very least), it is easier to continue organizing against and protesting the American governments repression of its people to provoke real change.14 Similarly, the wide-spread protest movements, Fridays for Future (FFF), Youth for Climate, Climate Strike or Youth Strike for Climate, essentially carved out protected time during the school day for protests to occur as children, protected by various laws stating that they must go to school, were let back into school on Monday after returning from protesting on Friday.
In March, America’s market economy became overhauled by federal and state sanctioned regulations to alleviate the healthcare system to tackle the virus outbreak bringing the need to remedy mass unemployment and aiding struggling corporations. Mayors and governors crowded the stage many addressing their constituents directly on a daily basis. Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefing was broadcasted on most local TV channels across the country. When Cuomo pleads for New Yorker’s to stay at home and social distance, even offering through the NYC Health Department tips for safer sex during COVID-1915 and addressing intimate and personal matters, it is not surprising that people feel empowered to speak directly to politicians to advocate for and vocalize defunding a police force that is killing their friends, family and neighbors.
Lastly, regulations, fear of infection, death and the uncertainty of what will happen in the world has impacted people. Social media platforms offer spaces to process, discuss, and engage with the Corona crisis and our current situations both through information sharing, critique, humor, and holding others responsible for their actions. The crisis has forced many to (re)learn and spend more time communicating and broadcasting. According to the New York Times, we are ‘internet-ing’ differently and using a wider range of apps and services16 – Zoom usage climbed from 10 million daily meeting participants in December to 300 million in April.17 We are also spending more time on our immediate environment, local neighborhood and families. We have all become better at communicating online – thus more people are participating in digital forms of protest to broadcast, negotiate and further the Black Lives Matter movement.
Simply put, in the past months, we have moved from recreating our favorite art works to fend off weary in the confinement of our homes to collectively with love, in outrage, despair, hope, and solidarity protest racism and police brutality and reimagine the society we live in; the Black Lives Matter movement has brought us out of our homes back into the streets18 and, hopefully, to the voting polls. Latour’s appeal to reconsider how we can use this slowdown of capitalism to renegotiate existing production models to better protect our environment is valid. Yet, environmental policy is more mature and developed than anti-racist policy. The former is institutionalized, carried out by a complex system of national and international bi- and multilateral agencies and partnerships pressurized by activists, like Greta Thunberg. We must make sure that the Black Lives Matter movement in America and anti-racist policy across the world continues to develop – like climate change, this is an issue that belongs to us all. We must stay the course.