Exiting the elevators on the fourth floor, we are confronted with curator Michelle Grabner’s statement, printed on the wall, and a portrait of Barack Obama by Dawoud Bey. Translation: “Look at art in the era of our first black president!” Alternate translation: “Thumbs up to the Democratic Party!” Another alternate translation: This is a signifier that links Grabner’s floor to liberal democracy—“Hey, I’m one of you, an American who believes in progress!” The biennial has three curators and each has a floor. Why shouldn’t they all have their own presidential portrait? George W. Bush for Anthony Elms. Eisenhower or Johnson for Stuart Comer. It’s safe to say that the Obama portrait is open code for the newest American myth: the multicultural, progressive future.
Obama as multicultural symbol establishes the “correct” gaze of the 4th floor and the 2014 Whitney. If museum goers were high-schoolers being forced to take standardized tests on imperial timelines, this symbol would represent the party line of contemporary American art. The insertion of people of color into white space doesn’t make it less colonial or more radical—that’s the rhetoric of imperialistic multiculturalism, a bullshit passé theory. What’s more, the 2014 Whitney Biennial didn’t even bother to insert more people of color. The gesture was merely rhetorical.
Rogue counting is finding numbers that institutions don’t want to produce, and we believe it’s essential to apply it to white curatorial practices. But the problem is structural, rooted in a long violent genealogy of gatekeeping. In the tradition of the Zapatistas, we talk back to the institution by translating its language. The following quotes are drawn from the curators’ introduction to the Biennial catalogue:
“We hope that our iteration of the Biennial will suggest the profoundly diverse and hybrid cultural identity of America today.”
Translation: “The 2014 Whitney Biennial is the whitest Biennial since 1993. Taking a cue from the corporate whitewashing of network television, high art embraces white supremacy under the rhetoric of multicultural necessity and diversity.”
“The exhibition and this catalogue offer a rare chance to look broadly at different types of work and various modes of working that can be called contemporary American art.”
Translation: “Our definition of different and broad is rooted in a definition of the art world that excludes the vast majority of the cultural production of people of color and others at the margins.”