Named after an infelicitous term that defined “broken windows” policing in the 1990s, the phrase “zero tolerance” swept into widespread use as a Giuliani-era antidote to New York’s rampant street crime. In the disorderly aughts, governments around the world adopted the idea, helping to shape copycat regimes from St. Petersburg to São Paulo. With the recent opening of a boisterous MOMA P.S.1 exhibition, the concept has finally become fodder for the art world’s gristmill. Though present-day New York City is anything but ground zero for the marriage of art and politics, the coercive term makes for a catchall locution — not to mention a nifty show title.
Curated by P.S.1 director Klaus Biesenbach, “Zero Tolerance” brings together politically minded work by 20 artists from across the globe. Responses to real and perceived repression, the pieces explore the increasingly thin line separating art from activism while showing how a variety of non-Western artists participate in and organize parades, demonstrations, marches, and protests. As we learned during Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, these artists’ activities are frequently documented by video and still cameras, then shared via social media. Far from meme fodder, they often prove overwhelmingly civic.
“Zero Tolerance” begins its short history of protest art before the advent of the interwebs: On entering the building’s lobby, a viewer comes face to face with Lorraine O’Grady’s sprawling Art Is….The room-size installation kicks off the exhibition in upbeat fashion: 40 color photographs the artist took during Harlem’s African American Day Parade in 1983, capturing children, adults, and policemen mugging picture-in-picture style behind ornate gold frames she’d handed out. Elsewhere the show suggests darker instances when art and politics may have met prior to 1990. These include documentation of John and Yoko’s 1969 Bed-In, a 1973 screen print by Joseph Beuys that sarcastically reads Democracy Is Merry, and Act Up’s famous 1987 pink-triangle poster Silence = Death. The foregoing examples aside, however, “Zero Tolerance” displays serious signs of long-term memory loss.
If high dudgeon is the exhibition’s tenor, then the medium of choice is clearly the handheld camera. Video dominates this show the way formulaic competitions monopolize the Food Network. Preachy, narcissistic work thrives in this setting. There is, for example, Sharon Hayes’s righteous footage of herself “courageously” holding cryptic signs on a London street corner (“Votes For Women?” reads one; another says “Organise Or Starve”). Then there’s Mircea Cantor’s video of a simulated protest, titled The Landscape Is Changing. Footage of decidedly “conceptual” protesters holding mirrored panels in place of placards, the work flatters curatorial taste (witness this show) in much the same way shiny new abstraction beguiles art-market speculators.
If there were a Theodor Adorno Prize for Echo Chamber Art, though, it would go to artist-curator Artur Zmijewski. Here the organizer of the disastrous 2012 Berlin Biennale has contributed a bank of 20 video screens that indiscriminately plays footage of burials, political rallies, and a crowd watching soccer. The videos’ uniform format cynically levels these mass activities into what the exhibition wall text calls “political mechanisms” consisting of “conflict and resolution, conformism and resistance, denunciation and revolt.”
For all of the missteps, the show’s core of real-life clashes between authoritarian politics and inventive art dramatically overshadows the cozy examples of art-world art. Among the barn burners: a short video of the Pussy Riot punk performance that famously helped expose the draconian nature of the Putin regime, and a recorded action by the art collective VOINA that shows group members kissing and tussling with Russian policewomen on the subway. A third video, Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica’s Videograms of a Revolution, compacts 100-plus hours of footage into a 90-minute chronicle of the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. Captured largely from the point of view of ordinary Romanians, it proves as compelling as anything in The Battle of Algiers. (Amazingly, the Ceausescu regime controlled typewriters but deemed video cameras to be private property.)
Best in show goes to Igor Grubic’s East Side Story. A two-channel projection of gay-pride parades in Croatia and Serbia matched with interpretive performances by a Zagreb dance troupe, the videos capture the kind of spontaneous vitriol and elegance that makes one simultaneously despair of and regain faith in the human race. As an artwork it does what more videos and photographs in this show should: It provides deep insight about raw politics and gives the lie to the argument that protest is an exercise in futility.