Activist art in the United States has historically arrived in bumps and waves. Sometimes it makes a significant and lasting impact beyond the art world (think the AIDS Quilt) and sometimes it makes a splash then just as quickly fades away. When Erina Duggane stumbled on twelve boxes of archival material relating to the 1980s movement Artists Call in the vaults of Museum of Modern Art Library in New York, she discovered a body of work that involved hundreds of artists working across the US and in several countries in Central and South America.
Over the next five years, Duggane and her co-curator Abigail Satinsky researched the movement, adding to the MOMA material from the personal archives of Lucy Lippard, Josley Carvalho, and Dough Ashford, all of whom were instrumental in the founding and ongoing activities of the movement. In assembling Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities, Duggane and Satinsky have created a compelling and engrossing record of a time of political upheaval in the US and Latin America and an art movement that responded with innovative work and international cooperation.
The first thing to understand about this show as a visitor is its scale. The University of New Mexico Art Museum has gallery space on three floors, and this show fills all of it. In addition to the Artists Call archival material, there is work that preceded the establishment of Artists Call as well as contemporary work, some of which was commissioned specifically for this exhibition. There are also a couple of pieces from the original Artists Call shows — “U.S. Isolation Box” by Hans Haacke and “Insurrection” by Gregory Sholette – that were lost and have been recreated for this exhibition.
The entry to the exhibit in the main gallery provides helpful context for the political environment of the time, as well as efforts by artists that preceded Artists Call. Two of the contemporary works are located in this entry area. “Brief History of US Interventions in Latin America Since 1946” (Carlos Motta, 2005, 2014) was not made for this show, but provides invaluable background. It is a simple poster that lists the dates and locations of those interventions, along with a short paragraph about each. The opposite side of the poster is is based on a photograph by Susan Meiselas (also included in the exhibition, and hung directly across from “Brief History”) of the White Hand signature left by a Salvadoran death squad on the door of a slain peasant leader. Copies of the poster are available for visitors to take for free.
A few feet further in, beyond a Claes Oldenburg-designed poster listing all the artists involved, is a newly-commissioned work by Beatriz Cortez called “1984: Space-Time Capsule”. A steel geodesic dome covered with feathers, the piece refers back to Artists Call participant Coosje van Bruggen for whom the feather represented writing, but also refers further back to the symbolic use of feathers in the ancient Americas. The piece was assembled by Cortez along with collaborators, all of whom are immigrants from Latin America and serves as a shelter for their own stories and memories as well as those of their ancestors. Some of these stories are hung inside the dome, creating an archive within this archival exhibit.
On the other side of the main gallery from this introductory info, you’ll find some of the pre-Artists Call work. Some if it dates back to the Vietnam War era, and some of it is earlier activist work by artists who would go on to be involved in Artists Call. Toward the back is a large display of items from the personal archives mentioned above: items from Central and South America that were collected by movement members while working on the project as well as artwork that inspired the members.
In a small hallway gallery off the main gallery is treasure trove of multimedia works. Recordings from live events such as poetry readings and performances have been digitally converted from cassette and reel-to-reel tapes and Super-8 film, speaking to the range of the art created by those involved in the movement. A recording of a voice performance by Jerri Allyn, Queer Revolution (performed with Debra Wanner) is a stream-of-consciousness monologue exploring the contradictions of calls for solidarity with Latin American revolutions that discriminated against or criminalized queer communities. It’s interesting as a historical artifact, but as a work of art it is riveting. While Allyn extemporizes, Wanner serves as an impromptu chorus, repeating phrases and emphasizing their impact. These works require some time to take in, but the effort pays off.
Downstairs in the lower gallery there are several works addressing self-determination and sovereignty. Many of the pieces were made by Central American artists, some living in the US at the time that Artists Call was active, some more recently made. I found myself spending a lot time with Expoliada (Sandra Monterroso, 2011), in which the artist made video of herself dying batches of thread using traditional techniques and creating “space for ritual” in the process. The video is interesting and the actual dyed threads hanging next to the monitor are compelling in an abstract, meditative way. The color of the first batch is a deep yellow, approaching orange, and each successive batch is a lighter color until the last batch is undyed white, a reference to the way extractive industries are using up Guatemala’s resources.
The gallery on the third floor addresses the nature of information and disinformation. In 2022 with non-stop access to news and media, it’s taken as a given that at least some of what we hear and see is manipulated, whether for emotional impact or specifically to mislead. In the 1980s, there was plenty of reason to believe that similar manipulation was occurring—Watergate was still a raw nerve, after all— but it wasn’t as commonly understood. The works in this gallery show the efforts of Artists Call to make people aware. One of the largest physical works in the show, U.S. Isolation Box, Grenada, 1983 (Hans Haacke, 1984) is a reconstruction of the boxes used by US troops during the invasion of the tiny island nation of Grenada, ostensibly to protect US citizens going to school there. The invasion was painted as both a heroic stand against Communism and as a cakewalk, but very little news coverage dealt with how badly the US was treating Grenadans.
Across the room is a wall dedicated to Solidarity Art by Mail, a collaboration project organized in 1983 by Josely Carvalho and Fatima Bercht, where they reached out to artists still living and working in Central and South American countries to ask them to participate in Artists Call via mail are. Dozens of pieces arrived over the months, providing a view from where the revolutions and US interventions were taking place.
I have two qualms about the show. One is the size. It is massive. I went twice for about an hour each time, and I still feel like I rushed through parts so that I could sit with others. That’s not bad in itself, of course. Breadth is good! But I’m not sure that most people will want to visit twice, and I worry about what they’ll miss.
The second is potentially thornier, but I think maybe even more important. There is too little information about the political atmosphere in the US at the time and about what was happening in the art world. Yes, there are some specific items in the show about some specific instances of art action and US military action around this time. But to really grasp why Artists Call got such a huge response to their invitation and why the artists were so passionate, I believe visitors would benefit from little more context about what the US public was learning about the Reagan administration’s actions in Central America and the Caribbean. At the same time, artists were exploring activism in a way that really hadn’t happened since the Situationists. As it stands it feels like the co-curators are assuming a level of knowledge that I’m not sure most visitors will bring. It would take up more space in an an already packed exhibit, but a show like this that is as much history as art deserves a chance to be fully and deeply understood.
Even with those qualms, Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities is worth your time. The evidence that 1100 artists can all get focused on one thing, and can be motivated by social action is heartening for the time we’re living in.