Interviews

CULTURE AS WEAPON: IN CONVERSATION WITH NATO THOMPSON

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Nato Thompson is a curator and writer who is currently the Artistic Director at Philadelphia Contemporary. He is the author of multiple books including Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-First CenturyLiving as Form, and his latest, Culture as Weapon: the Art of Influence in Everyday Life, which explores the ways in which visual culture has been utilized as a tool of influence across a broad spectrum from the visual arts and marketing to urban planning and military strategy. 

Looking back over the last couple decades at both artists whose practices directly oppose gentrification, but also the ways in which social practice art can implicitly encourage displacement by attracting the “creative class” to move into urban neighborhoods, do you believe social practice art has done more to deter gentrification or encourage it?

It’s hard to think of many efforts that have had much luck in stemming the tide of what we describe as gentrification. I mean, putting aside the conversation about artists for now, I don’t find many efforts on a grassroots level working all that well either. This is not to sound negative, but I think to discuss arts role in this, we must first appreciate the sheer scale of what we are discussing.

Gentrification, rather than just some phenomena placed in the consumer habits of individuals looking for cheap rent, is the result of a massive restructuring of the role that city’s play in the global economy. It is a scale shift felt globally as work moves away from manufacturing and jobs move increasingly toward urban centers. With this profound shift, we have greater demand for housing in urban centers, and a gold rush for developers to respond to.

So, with that said (and obviously I am being extremely simplistic), I don’t think about artists relationship to gentrification as having any causal effect. Not in the big picture. I truly don’t. I certainly think there are plenty of artists and art organizations hat are either unwittingly or purposely, utilized by the forces of capital for the needs of urban development (with gentrification being a result). That obviously happens. But I think one would have to place the bulk of the blame on a system of government unable to control or even manage the global shifts in how urban areas are being shaped.

I do think however, that these forces of capitalism unleashed in neighborhoods cuts along class and race lines, and artists of every stripe have a responsibility to be cognizant of these forces when considering a socially engaged art project.

But I also know that the effect on the forces of gentrification on the shape of activism, is that it has unleashed a deep set of energies where leftist activists constantly out people for being “gentrifiers”. As though gentrification were as simple as art shaping cities. The desire to be more pure than others and to villfiy those complicit with capital is an extremely corrosive strategy of activist culture. It certainly is a way of being in the world demonstrated by Guy Debord and his lonely hostile life. I think gentrification has often been used as a weapon by left activists to out radicalize people.

The idea of “placemaking” is a major point of intersection between culture and urban development. With regards to placemaking’s relationship to the identity and history of specific spaces, what do you believe are the responsibilities of planners and cultural producers in developing placemaking initiatives with respects to the communities who were in these spaces first?

It’s a great question. There certainly has been an evolution from the Richard Florida-inspired concept of placemaking to the kind of placemaking being talked about today with a lens of equity. I mean, frankly, the question of who benefits and how, is essential in considering all artistic and political decisions. So, of course, it is critical that urban planners and artists and everyone else, take into consideration how their work will effect given communities.

I would hasten to say though that the real trouble is that the actual solution to gentrification is both simple and yet extraordinarily difficult. It’s not all that different than climate change. We know the solutions. To reduce climate change, we need to reduce carbon emissions. To manage urban development, one has to be able to put in place protections for renters and manage the housing market. We know the answers to the big problems in urban living.

So why don’t we solve them? Because currently most government around the world have no ability to control or even direct market forces. Developers have city governments by the you know what. And the amount of people making money off carbon emmissions are just too vast and the price tag too steep for anyone in government to push back on it.

You’ve written a lot about the ways counter-cultural signifiers have been co-opted by the cultural industry. In your text for the ‘Interventionists’ catalog you talk about Debord’s concept of the detournment in which capitalist signifiers are rerouted for new ends (typically politically radical ideas), as well as  ‘recuperation’ in which politically radical ideas are inversely co-opted and neutralized by media culture. In our contemporary visual culture in which the lines have been blurred between person and corporation, as well as artist and brand, do you believe there is still a distinction that can be made between culture and counter-culture, detournement and recuperation? What do you believe are the terms that this distinction is contingent on? 

You know, I don’t actually believe any longer what I wrote in that book funny enough. It’s not that I don’t think that capitalism absorbs cultural signifiers and redeploys them. I mean we know that. But what I don’t actually believe is that things are entirely eaten up by capitalism simply because they are redeployed. What I mean by that is that take for example the image of Che Gueverra. Long ago, Taco Bell used that image and had a campaign of a revolutionary Chihuahua that sold tacos in the image of Che. Now, one could say that now the image of Che Guevarra has been absorbed. That would be the sort of thinking I talked about in the Interventionists. But what I failed to take to heart, is that simultaneously, the image of Che Guevarra remains potent.

Rather than completely sucking the energy out of things, capitalism just siphons energy off things. This is important because in my previous analysis, this concept of recouperation leaves no possibility for resistence. And it also provides fodder for critics of capitalism to dismiss most cultural activity as already having been absorbed. It in many ways gives much too much credit to capitalism in a way this is simply inaccurate. Capitalism is a force yes. But it doesn’t answer all forms of power, nor does it eat through everything. I like to say to some of my more overwhelmingly Marxist friends, relax, we can have a drink and capitalism will not recuperate us.

 I keep coming back to the Situationist slogan from the 1960s: “culture is the commodity that sells all the others”. It’s now half of a century later and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how this quote has played out throughout history. Has anything changed? 

I sort of spoke to that in the last question, but I can direct this in a different way. I wrote a book called Culture as Weapon and certainly, I am concerned and aware of just how powerful culture is as a commodity. I don’t mean to downplay it. I think that shaping how we feel, how we relate to each other, how we produce meaning in our lives, is absolutely a force shaped in a profound way by the rhizomatic but direct forces of the market place. Without a doubt.

But culture isn’t only commodities. We can produce meaning in the world outside of the market. Many conversations, while certainly influenced by capitalism in their values and contours, are nevertheless, also shaped by other forces as well. Capitalism is not the only bad guy. And, it’s not all bad people at the table. There are many forces that shape that amorphous phenomena called culture as well as its subjects.

So much of your work is about deconstructing not what images signify but the ways in which they are utilized and weaponized. If visual culture can constantly be co-opted and used to whatever ends the dominant discourses wish, is it even possible for visual culture to still be effective in counteracting systems of power? If yes, what are some contemporary examples that you have found particularly effective?

Of course it’s possible. In many ways, I think these problems circle back to the same concern around recuperation and co-optation. There are other concepts that feed into the viscous cycle, like “capture”. It’s not just a trap of thinking, but also can be very misleading in relation to how one interprets their own experiences in the world and how one interprets the effectiveness of one’s actions. For symbols can be like a knife, they cut in many ways.

But I feel like I have addressed this to some degree. Lets discuss matters that are more effective. I think that one has to be somewhat humble when they discuss effectiveness when it comes to culture. For example, as much as art can be dismissed as ineffective because it moves in the realm of symbols, frankly, one can typically make the same claim about on the ground activism as well. It is a rare social justice campaign that arrives at concrete results in any quick manner. And even if they do, one should not be so quick to dismiss the efforts of things one cannot measure.

Jeff Chang talked about culture as this wave with everyone’s role playing a small part in a larger historical force. I feel similarly. Think about Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter. Now, I would say that initially many of these efforts could be dismissed as ineffectual. No policies were changed. No accountability. Whether it was banks or police, it seemed that each of these efforts didn’t account for all that much. But in fact, they each slowly but surely transformed the narrative around certain political issues. I remember listening to sports radio a few years back and hearing the announcer talk about “the 99%” and I thought, “wow, Occupy did in fact alter the entire narrative about class consciousness.” And, with #BLM, one could look to the Collin Kaepernick story that took a discussion about race straight into the mainstream.

Now, I think art can work in this manner. I really do. But they have gradual effects. One should not be too quick to dismiss the power of non-utilitarian actions in an age of literal didactic material everywhere. This kind of work just has to effect things at a slower pace and are certainly harder to assess their effectiveness. Just because we can’t measure it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Social change can come in many forms.

But on the flip side, because I also believe one shouldn’t have to do one style of things all the time, I am also a fan of straight up policy change. I mean, for example, the fight over gentrification is in fact simple: rent control. One just needs to have government manage the housing market. Rather than pointing who is and isn’t the gentrifier, as though the answer is trying to out the capitalists in a neighborhood, I think focusing on the power of collective governance to challenge the control of cities by neoliberalism is the key.

But to now switch back to art, I implore folks to not be so reductionist in their thinking. Neoliberalism is a massive nightmare that effects every single one of us. If people are working through things in a way that seems ineffective, take a moment to realize that in large part that sums up the actions of most of us. It’s hard to gauge effectiveness. Just look at the efforts to stop climate change. Art can have the power to open up new narratives outside capital if we allow them room to breathe. (obviously art can also bolster the power of capital. I am under no illusions about that). But for the sake of this interview, I just want to implore folks to not be “captured’ by the concept of “capture” or not to be recuperated by a self-satisfied analysis that everything is commodified. It is a trap that will give you no room to breathe and it isn’t accurate. We live outside capital all the time. Just try to see a doctor and you will feel it immediately.

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