Assuming Boycott



“The brilliant writers and debaters assembled here come at the issue from different angles, all from the central belief that art is never not political. In the end, they are less interested in arguing for or against tactics than they are in advocating an art of political thinking.”
—Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic, The New York Times

“Artistic resistance has seldom proven so socially useful, or as complicated. This intellectually engaging study targets the paradoxes, limitations, and media spectacle of organized cultural boycotts and state-sponsored censorship from South African apartheid in the 1980s, to present day Israel-Palestine, Cuba, the Gulf States, the United Kingdom, and the United States among other geopolitical zones of conflict.” —Gregory Sholette, artist and author of Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism

Assuming Boycott defiantly holds the best arguments regarding boycott. It shows that boycott is not only a form of sanctions but also an invitation to dialogue. This collection of essays offers a historical perspective with comparative case studies, making it the ultimate resource to help decide where to draw the ethical line.” —Galit Eilat, writer and curator, co-curator of 31st São Paulo Biennial

Assuming Boycott is an essential contribution to an ongoing, urgent conversation about how artists, writers, and thinkers have time and again created subtle, meaningful, powerful, and vibrant ways to engage the political sphere. This book is a valuable guide to cultural boycotts from South Africa to Palestine.” —Walid Raad, artist, professor, Cooper Union

“Without a trace of left-wing melancholy, the authors offer us an essential guide to the terrain of cultural politics today. With colleagues and comrades like these, one feels not only bolstered but downright emboldened.” —Hal Foster, Townsend Martin Professor of Art and Archeology, Princeton University; editor, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture

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About the Book

Boycott and divestment are essential tools for activists around the globe. Today’s organizers target museums, universities, corporations, and governments to curtail unethical sources of profit, discriminatory practices, or human rights violations. They leverage cultural production – and challenge its institutional supports – helping transform situations in the name of social justice.

The refusal to participate in an oppressive system has long been one of the most powerful weapons in the organizer’s arsenal. Since the days of the 19th century Irish land wars, when Irish tenant farmers defied the actions of Captain Charles Boycott and English landlords, “boycott” has been a method that’s shown its effectiveness time and again. In the 20th century, it notably played central roles in the liberation of India and South Africa and the struggle for civil rights in the U.S.: the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott is generally seen as a turning point in the movement against segregation.

Assuming Boycott is the essential reader for today’s creative leaders and cultural practitioners, including original contributions by artists, scholars, activists, critics, curators and writers who examine the historical precedent of South Africa; the current cultural boycott of Israel; freedom of speech and self-censorship; and long-distance activism. Far from withdrawal or cynicism, boycott emerges as a productive tool of creative and productive engagement.

Including essays by Nasser Abourahme, Ariella Azoulay, Tania Bruguera, Noura Erakat, Kareem Estefan, Mariam Ghani with Haig Aivazian, Nathan Gray and Ahmet Öğüt, Chelsea Haines, Sean Jacobs, Yazan Khalili, Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich, Svetlana Mintcheva, Naeem Mohaiemen, Hlonipha Mokoena, John Peffer, Joshua Simon, Ann Laura Stoler, Radhika Subramaniam, Eyal Weizman and Kareem Estefan, and Frank B. Wilderson III.

Cover art by Josh MacPhee.

Publication June 8, 2017 • 276 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-92-0 • E-book 978-1-68219-093-7

About the Editors

assuming boycott editors photo

Photograph © Josh Cender. L to R: Estefan, Kuoni, Raicovich.

Kareem Estefan is an art critic, writer, editor, and doctoral candidate in Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media department, where he researches contemporary visual culture and the intersections of art, media, and politics, with a focus on the Middle East. His writing on contemporary art and cultural activism has appeared in Art in America, Art-Agenda, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Frieze, Ibraaz, and The New Inquiry, among other places. From 2012–2015, Estefan was Associate Editor of Creative Time Reports, an online magazine of the New York-based public art nonprofit Creative Time, where he worked closely with artists such as James Bridle, Mel Chin, Molly Crabapple, Mariam Ghani, Emily Jacir, Naeem Mohaiemen, and Ahmet Öğüt on texts that addressed pressing political issues.

Carin Kuoni is a curator and editor whose work examines how contemporary artistic practices reflect and inform social, political and cultural conditions. She is Director/Curator of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School and teaches there. A founding member of the artists’ collective REPOhistory, Kuoni has curated and co-curated numerous transdisciplinary exhibitions, and edited and co-edited several books, among them Energy Plan for the Western Man: Joseph Beuys in America; Words of Wisdom: A Curator’s Vademecum; Speculation, Now; and Entry Points: The Vera List Center Field Guide on Art and Social Justice. She is the recipient of a 2014 Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellowship, directed “SITAC XII: Arte, justamente” in Mexico City in 2015, and is a Travel Companion for the 57th Carnegie International in 2018.

Laura Raicovich is President and Executive Director of The Queens Museum of the City of New York. A champion of socially engaged art practices that address the most pressing social, political, and ecological issues of our times, she has defined her career with artist-driven projects and programs. Recent projects at the Queens Museum include “Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art”; “William Gropper: Bearing Witness”; “Mickalene Thomas: Untitled”; “Mariam Ghani: Garden of Forked Tongues”; “Duke Riley: That’s What She Said”; “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk,” as well as a series of programs designed with Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro to launch their “Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.” She lectures internationally, has contributed regularly to The Brooklyn Rail, and is the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties and At the Lightning Field.

Read an Excerpt

From the foreword by Carin Kuoni and Laura Raicovich:

Boycott is a tool of our time, a political and cultural strategy that has rarely been more prominent than now. Examples abound of contemporary artists holding institutions accountable for the ethical standards enacted in them. By addressing labor issues in the United Arab Emirates, the funding structures and political entanglements of biennials from Sydney and Saint Petersburg to São Paulo and New York, and calls to join a cultural boycott of Israel, artists are leveraging their power to shift the ways culture is produced on individual, civic, institutional, and educational levels. Indeed, art institutions and universities, cities, and entire countries have been affected by positions that pose as “withdrawal” or “disengagement” and in fact often result in various actions and pointed engagement around specific ethical questions.

In our roles as cultural producers, we recognized implementation of boycott as a distinctly political tactic, one that generated a parallel uptick in calls for accountability in artistic endeavors. In 2014 we began planning a series of seminars and programs at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School to engage students, artists, thinkers, and general audiences in a deep consideration of the multiple trajectories of these particular contemporary conditions in which we are all implicated. Presented under the Vera List Center’s curatorial focus theme Alignment, the resulting seminars and the many conversations that they spurred, as well as the culminating colloquium that took place in the spring of 2015, revealed an extensive world of ideas we felt required a publication. Fortunately, the publisher of this volume, OR Books, agreed.

This book is the result of an ongoing effort to contend with the meanings of boycott and withdrawal as significant cultural practices of our time. It focuses on key texts developed during specific campaigns as well as essays retrospectively reflecting on and synthesizing the often heated debates that accompanied particular acts of boycotts or refusal. In so doing, we hope this book not only reveals in-the-moment realities, but also tracks shifts in language and implementation of principles over the course of debate and dialogue. Above all, this gathering of texts seeks to explore how strategies, alliances, lead actors, and guidelines have responded and adapted to a changing cultural, political, and economic environment.

The seminars, and now this publication, center the notion that cultural production opens avenues for new ways of thinking. How productive or conducive can the methods of withdrawal and boycott be for politically oriented artistic practices? What are the conditions under which decisions on forms of engagement are made? How does distance, physical, experiential, or intellectual, impact artists’ engagement or disengagement? How effective are these strategies and what are the long-term impacts? What are the significant historical referents for this kind of work? What is the relationship between boycott, censorship, self-censorship, and freedom of expression? And how do these practices shape an entire field, regardless of whether one endorses a boycott or not?

To address these inquiries, the essays are grouped in four interconnected sections: an exploration of the cultural boycott of South Africa during the apartheid regime; a deep dive into the call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel from Palestinian civil society; multiple discussions of who speaks (for whom) and who is silenced in the debates and campaigns surrounding contemporary boycotts; and finally, an assessment of the meanings and realities of engagement and disengagement from afar in a period of proliferating biennials and global cultural events. The texts have grown out of papers and discussions delivered at the seminars and the colloquium, augmented by key texts reprinted for their special relevance to these topics. The authors, who are artists, scholars, curators, and activists, each consider the ways in which withdrawal and boycott have impacted the conditions for engaged discourse and/or art making. Taken together, the essays shed light on boycotts as cultural work and unpack their motivations (why a boycott), practices (how a boycott), and consequences (what effects does a boycott create)….

Table of Contents

Introduction by Kareem Estefan

I. The Cultural Boycott of Apartheid South Africa
Sean Jacobs, The Legacy of the Cultural Boycott Against South Africa
John Peffer, Art, Resistance, and Community in 1980s South Africa
Hlonipha Mokoena, Kwaito: The Revolution Was Not Televised; It Announced Itself in Song
Frank B. Wilderson III, Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (excerpt)

II. BDS and the Cultural Boycott of Israel
Ariella Azoulay, “We,” Palestinians and Jewish Israelis: The Right Not to Be a Perpetrator
Noura Erakat, The Case for BDS and the Path to Co-Resistance
Eyal Weizman and Kareem Estefan, Extending Co-Resistance
Nasser Abourahme, Boycott, Decolonization, Return: BDS and the Limits of Political Solidarity
Joshua Simon, Neoliberal Politics, Protective Edge, and BDS
Yazan Khalili, The Utopian Conflict

III. Who Speaks? Who Is Silenced?
Tania Bruguera, The Shifting Grounds of Censorship and Freedom of Expression
Naeem Mohaiemen, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign
Svetlana Mintcheva, Structures of Power and the Ethical Limits of Speech
Ann Laura Stoler, By Colonial Design: Or, Why We Say We Don’t Know Enough

IV. Dis/engagement From Afar
Chelsea Haines, The Distant Image
Mariam Ghani with Haig Aivazian, 52 Weeks, and Engaging by Disengaging
Nathan Gray and Ahmet Öğüt, Not Walking Away: Participation and Withdrawal in the 2014 Sydney Biennial
Radhika Subramaniam, Loose Connections

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