Occupy Museums (Arthur Polendo, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Kenneth Pietrobono, Noah Fischer, Tal Beery) presents Debtfair Bundle: artists affected by the Puerto Rican debt crisis, 2017. This project, first shown at the Whitney Museum’s Biennial 2017, is here reconceived by the artists of Occupy Museums to focus on the Puerto Rican debt crisis and the art-related debt of artists on the island. This project features works by artists Yasmin Hernández, Sofía Maldonado, Celestino Junior Ortiz, Norma Vila Rivero, Gamaliel Rodríguez, Adrian Viajero Román, Melquiades Rosario-Sastre, Nibia Pastrana Santiago, Jose Soto, and Gabriella Torres-Ferrer.
Occupy Museums notes: Debtfair is based around a single question we asked of artists and the cultural community at large: “how does your economic reality affect your art?” What we have found is that personal debt––from student loans to credit cards to mortgages––plays a major role in the lives artists can lead and, ultimately, in what their work looks like. In bringing this question into a luxury art museum like the Whitney, Debtfair connects the boom of the art market with the boom of the debt market as linked realities. By asking artists to speak openly about their economic realities we hope to open a conversation that is currently taboo, demystify the ways in which our debts are connected, and produce a new lens through which we can see how art is connected to the economic conditions in which it is produced. And, of course, economic conditions cannot be separated from social and political conditions just as personal debts cannot be separated from the collective debts that we as a society hold––national debt, colonial debt, debt to the original inhabitants of this land, and debt to the enslaved Africans who built this country.
One of the early decisions in designing Debtfair was that we would show the work not on the walls but inside the walls. For us, this represents a hidden yet pervasive reality that we seek to uncover. Within the cutout shape are artworks of 30 artists who joined Debtfair. The works are framed between the exposed wall studs. Above and below the artworks are gray boards which serve as placeholders for artworks and symbolize a continuation of so many more unnamed artists who are affected by debt, but whose actual artworks are not present.
In creating this project, our group had to select 30 artists from more than 500 who joined the project, so we acted more or less like curators. However, while curators usually select artworks based on content or quality, we selected these artists based on information relating to the kinds of debts they hold. You will notice that behind the artworks are custom wallpapers of different colors and patterns. These patterns demarcate the three different “bundles” that we are exhibiting. The word bundle is not used by accident––it is meant to echo the bundles of debt that are traded by banks and investment firms.
If you look to the left of the wall, the pattern behind the artworks contains small images of the Puerto Rican flag, Banco Popular, and First Bank of Puerto Rico. The artists in this section each have a direct relation to these financial institutions and to the Puerto Rican debt crisis. In 2015, the US government and large hedge funds signed a deal called Promesa with Puerto Rico that bound the territory with heavy austerity measures. Puerto Rico is effectively a modern-day colony of the United States; its residents do not have full citizenship, its resources have been plundered, and its economy is designed to fill the coffers of US corporations. The ten artists on the left side of the wall have been affected by this situation.
With Debtfair, Occupy Museums calls on artists and the art public to recognize the two booms of the art market: that of the financialized art object and that of artist debt. The American artist is a debtor: seven out of ten of the most expensive schools in the United States are art schools and the national chain of Art Institutes (Ai) have proven to be highly predatory higher education ventures. However, the American artist is a debtor in Puerto Rico simply by virtue of connection to the colonial debt crisis whose power imbalance between debtor and creditor is embodied in the Promesa Bill. Here, Occupy Museums presents a “bundle” of 10 artworks by 10 artists directly affected by the Puerto Rican Debt crisis whose personal debts total $648,224.67. This collective debt includes First Bank of Puerto Rico and Banco Popular, among many institutions. The Bundle is presented framed by a graph that tracks the growth of Puerto Rican debt from 2010-2015: an economic abstraction that affects both lives and culture.
About Occupy Museums
Occupy Museums is a collective of artists and activists that emerged directly from the Occupy Wall Street movement; most of our members met in Zuccotti Park in 2011. The common goal of Occupy Museums is to bring the critique of wealth and inequality directly to the cultural sphere where finance and aesthetics currently collude. In one previous example of our work, we supported the struggle of Teamsters Union Local 814 who were fighting against a lockout by their employer, Sotheby’s. The auction house wanted to cut their pay and union rights while selling paintings for tens of millions of dollars to the tune of record profits. This reflects the anti-worker mentality seen in Corporate America generally and it shouldn’t be accepted in the arts or any industry. Much of our work has taken the form of direct actions on the streets and actions in museums like MoMA designed to pause business as usual to call out specific injustices perpetuated by said museum. But in this project we have worked closely with the Whitney Museum. Our goal is to create a new way of looking at art objects. We want people to see not only the colors, forms, meanings intended by the artists, but also the often withering economic realities that frame the practice of art in America today.
Artist, activist, researcher and educator Yazmin Hernandez, requested a statement be read on her behalf during a public program. To read, click here.
OCCUPY MUSEUMS: Debtfair, and its accompanying public program is supported, in part, by CLACS and Latino Studies, NYU.