Most of this past year’s proposed radical agendas contain nothing that’s actually revolutionary or visionary. Politicians, theocrats, and profiteers campaign on platforms of retroactive change: ideological preservation, religious orthodoxy. ‘A return to values,’ they call it. These programs are then branded “radical” by broadcasters for efficient consumption. But the tyrannical and feudal world-views that 2015’s dogmatists and ‘disruptors’ promote are as old as time, recycled programs of oppression passed down through generations and sustained by fear and regress. Fortunately, we have other radical thinkers, free radicals, untethered to crumbling ideological architectures and archaic creeds. They include the artists and cultural workers who contributed to this reading list, and the authors of the texts they cite as most influential to their practice.
The texts illuminated below call out for equity, de-gentrification, decolonization, demilitarization, prison reform, production reform, institutional critique, radical difference, and spiritual inquiry. Artists activate these texts in their practice with various strategies of reclamation, mutiny, intervention, play and collective creativity. Telescoped this way, the authors and artists engage in a catalytic exchange igniting the essential meaning of “radical”: a thorough reimagining of our presence and potential.
Melanie Cervantez, Artist; Activist
Almanac of the Dead
By Leslie Marmon Silko (New York: Penguin Random House, 1991)
This book was first published when many people in the U.S. were celebrating the quincentennial anniversary of the day Christopher Columbus first invaded indigenous territories in what we now know as the U.S. It’s a story about major global change and it imagines the possibility of global Indigenous people taking up revolution. Silko weaves together so many narratives that reflect my world and she doesn’t shy away from being centered in a set of politics that challenge White Supremacy and global capital. I find myself coming back to this book for inspiration again and again.
Ian Dolton-Thornton, Artist
By Antek Walczak (Paris: May Review, Journal #6, 2011)
Antek Walczak reviews the 2010 Paul Thek retrospective in New York City’s Whitney Museum, wringing out the recirculation of the artist as perpetual antidote. In a long moment where our bodies require constant refreshing, Walczak articulates the HD thinness of work and use, the poverty that cannot (or perhaps had not) become offensive. If the artwork is self-constituted, what happens when we leave? This text narrates a culture networked between symbols, including bodies, through infrastructures that will throw some away.
Leslie Dreyer, Artist
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination
By Sarah Schulman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)
The very week I read The Gentrification of the Mind in April 2013, the SF Pride Parade board revoked the nomination of heroic whistleblower Chelsea Manning as Grand Marshall. Sarah Schulman’s descriptions of the pervasive homogenization of everything, from our ideas to our cultural institutions, were playing out before my very eyes in San Francisco. Inflamed by her chapter “The Gentrification of Gay Politics” and with reverence to Act UP and Gay Shame’s history of protesting Pride’s corporatization, I asked fellow housing activists to parade a Google Bus, an emerging symbol for Bay Area gentrification, through our upcoming Pride procession. We drove a white luxury bus with Google-font signage reading “Gentrification Eviction Technologies OUT” down Market Street followed by a giant map of Ellis Act evictions – perfectly sandwiched between Google and Twitter’s contingents. Preceding numerous actions tying the second tech boom to exacerbated displacement, a meme was born with a handful of queers saying ‘hell no’ to a normative, neoliberal order and ‘hell yes’ to a right to the city. Schulman’s concluding call for “degentrification” continues to resonate as I imagine new ways art intervention and collective organizing can be used to resist the displacement of our communities and the enclosure of our hearts, minds and public spheres.
Rodney Ewing, Artist
Alfredo Jaar: Geography = War
By Alfredo Jaar with essays by W. Avon Drake, Steven S. High, H. Ashley Kister and Adriana Valdes (Richmond, VA: Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1991)
“My dilemma as an artist is how to make art out of information that most of us would rather ignore. How do you actually make art when the world is in such a state?”
This quote from Alfredo Jaar is the opening line of his catalog, Geography=War. This line of inquiry has influenced my practice because I am always asking myself this question when I approach a new project. Being exposed to this quote as well as Alfredo’s work early in my career taught me how to think critically about the world around me, and it provided an ally who also filtered difficult events and subjects through his art practice. His statement provided my initial exposure to art and activism existing in one space.
Al Farrow, Artist
WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING
By Chris Hedges (New York: Public Affairs, 2014)
Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of many books on politics and war. He was a war correspondent for many years and covered many conflicts around the world. He is also a seminarian.
His perspectives on war and religion align with my own – a rare encounter for me. He has a far deeper and in-the-body experience than I do, but his perspectives encourage me to continue on the path I have been on for many years with the sculptures I make that comment on war and religion.
Amy M. Ho, Artist
Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress
By Becky Pettit (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, June 2012)
A couple years ago, I received this book as a gift from someone familiar with my interest in prison reform. Invisible Men paints an alarming picture of the U.S. prison population through statistics and numbers. Although we are finally at a point where the general public is becoming aware of the need for prison reform, how as a society do we even begin to evaluate all the social issues tied to mass incarceration? Pettit points to the inequality in funding for social programs as one of the biggest problems that has led to mass incarceration, and she utilizes the power of statistics as proof of her argument. In reading this book, I realized that understanding the statistics behind mass incarceration was a form of power in and of itself. Since then, I have passed this book onto some of the inmate artists that I work with in hopes that they can become empowered through knowledge.
Rhiannon MacFayden, Curator, Director of A Simple Collective
By John Waters (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, April 2011)
In the fictional world of a John Waters movie, being radically different, plus being self-possessed, makes you a paradigm-shifting hero. His heroes in Role Models are less dramatic, but no less heroic – though on a personal and more humble scale. In the real world and with the real people Waters interviews, being radically different and radically self-possessed has garnered some form of success… or at least has landed people in slightly better positions than they’d be in if they were not confident in their differentness. From musicians, to porn makers, to criminals, to fashion designers, Waters talks with people (and art) he looks up to, and each interview shifted my perspective of what a role model can be.
If read with empathy, Role Models is a manifesto for the strange and a remedy for presumption.
Kyle Lane-Mckinley, Artist, Community Organizer
Communique from an Absent Future
By Research and Destroy (Santa Cruz: Black Powder Press)
I tend to think that a text is “radical” to the extent that it radicalizes a community of readers. No text in recent years has so deeply radicalized my communities as much as the appearance of Communique from an Absent Future. In its incisive brevity, the collectively authored pamphlet laid out the world-making stakes of a struggle against university privatization, but also sowed the seeds for new sets of analyses and tactics. These include emphases on occupation, on social reproduction, on systemic racism, on counter-logistics, on communization, and above all on urgency – all of which continue to impact my work as an artist and educator, and every other aspect of my life.
Dorothy Santos, Writer, Curator
Manual of Contemporary Art Style
By Pablo Helguerra (Bethesda: Jorge Pinto Books, 2007)
As a writer, editor, and curator with a penchant for politically charged works that incorporate digital and mobile technologies as well as science, my mind tends to be in overdrive most of the time. Helguerra’s work has helped me cope with the intricacies of the art world through sharp wit and humor. His work is subversive, tongue-in-cheek, and perennial. Although the text was written in 2005, 10 years later, his writing remains relevant. His “manual” is one of my favorite pieces of satirical writing about a world I’m probably never going to fully understand. But I try.
Elizabeth Travelslight, Artist
Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
By Judith Butler (New York: Verso Books 2004)
A collection of essays written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Precarious Life is my touchstone for how to be in and respond to a world transformed by the attacks and their political and cultural fallout. This history has loomed throughout my development as an adult and an artist. Inspired to forge alternative paradigms of difference and relationship, my research and art practice focus on how better worlds are made possible, the emotional experience of community and the material conditions for collective imagination and knowledge-making. Butler’s essays combine beautiful, accessible language about being, ethics, and togetherness within a common condition of vulnerability to violence.
Merav Tzur, Artist
The Book of Job
Translation by Stephan Mitchell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009)
The Book of Job consists of a prose framework – the prologue in chapters 1 and 2, the epilogue in chapter 42, verses 7-17, and the middle of the book is its poetic body. The poetic body in Job attempts to deal with universal concepts, where Job disputes the prevailing belief that God is just. Even though the religious message at the end of the book is that man’s relationship to God is not “give-and-get,” for me it created a structure on which to build some of my conceptual ideas. The prologue and epilogue in The Book of Job appear like a puppet show that happens before the curtain lifts and the real play begins – a facade that is created in preparation to discuss the actual issues. Most of my work has a façade that exists in order to discuss pressing universal concerns that question our dominant personal, cultural and historical beliefs.
This article is a continuation of last year’s series of revolutionary books influencing Bay Area artists and art professionals titled “Reading by the Fire.”