YoU Dispatch Questionnaire: Gabo Camnitzer

By Gabo Camnitzer

September 1, 2022

At the conclusion of YoU, the Artists-In-Residence were asked seven questions about their experience and the overall mission of this collaborative program. Five artists shared their responses, which can be viewed in their entirety below. A large-format broadsheet was also produced to highlight a selection of answers and images that delve into the strengths and challenges of interconnectedness, and the continued work to be done within the institution. 

Image Description: Three small groups of four participants are each sitting around a white table in the Queens Museum’s Unisphere Gallery, which has bright red carpeting and large windows that look onto the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Each table has a laptop, paper, pens, and pencils.

Question 1: Was there a relationship you built during YoU that impacted your work in a meaningful way?

I formed many bonds with staff, community partners, resident artists, and co-thinkers at QM that I will cherish. I got to work with Gia Enriquez and Niceli Portugal and their organization Escuelita en Casa. Escuelita en Casa is a collective of artists, educators and activists offering remote education to children all over the Americas. I also built relationships with students, parents and teachers involved in organizing for educational justice in NYC. Through my work with Video School (Candice Strongwater, Joey Lubitz, and myself), I collaborated with amazing people at organizations like Students Break the Silence, NYCoRE (New York Collective of Radical Educators), MORE Caucus (Movement of Rank and File Educators), and PRESS (Parents for Responsive, Equitable, and Safe Schools) and others.

Question 2: Which theme was most relevant to your work throughout YoU?

The broadness of terms like: “Care, Repair, The Future, Justice, Play” makes it hard to choose just one. 

Rather than imposing themes at the start, I think it would have been more generative to allow themes to arise organically. In this case it proved difficult to understand how the themes tied to the practices of the people participating.

As an artist and educator orbiting cultural and academic institutions, I try to be sensitive to the danger of conflating representations of things like “justice,” “care,” etc, with their actual practice. This confusion can lead to situations where institutions invite outsiders in to reflect on the practices of the institution, only to then shut down debate and disregard any critiques that arise, or advocate for things like “justice” and “care” while perpetuating exploitative labor practices, and being antagonistic toward workers who might be trying to establish a union.

Question 3: How has your work embraced uncertainty?

There is a blurriness between epistemological uncertainty and material uncertainty that makes this difficult to answer. I am suspicious of logical positivism, since I think we are all too mired in ideology to ever grasp objective truths. Therefore, the humility and curiosity of “embracing uncertainty” feels important to me. On the other hand, at this point it’s hard for me not to associate “embracing uncertainty” with the sleight of hand of the neoliberal rebranding of precarity and austerity, as “freedom” and “flexibility.” 

Question 4: What are two things you learned from YoU?

  1. The importance of not falling into the trap of treating symbolic artistic production as a substitute for organizing. 
  2. That the top down hierarchies of many institutions allow people with institutional power to confuse their best interests with the best interests of the institution as a whole.

Question 5: What does a “community museum” mean to you?

A community museum would be a space where the people most directly impacted by the museum come together to create, experiment, and organize for long-term cultural and material change. Establishing a community board and a union are critical to these processes.

A community museum would be a space that cultivates, evaluates, analyzes, and celebrates the forms of being/knowing of the community to which it belongs.

A community museum would need to work hard to avoid the traps of the non-profit industrial complex—tendencies like paternalism, reputation laundering, art-washing, and virtue signaling, among other things. As an example, a community museum which provided emergency services to people in its community wouldn’t rely upon the unpaid labor of people in that community in the provision of those services. They also wouldn’t then use those emergency services for publicity. 

I don’t think a community museum is something that can be implemented, deductively, from the top down. It needs to arise organically. In this way, the best an existing organization can do is set up the conditions of possibility for a community museum to arise and shape itself accordingly. This would involve redistributing power and resources equitably.

Question 6: Did YoU change the way you exist within museums?

 I have been thinking a lot about institutional psychotherapy in relation to museums. In the field of institutional analysis there is the concept of pathoplasty, in which institutions, rather than individuals, are seen as the location of illness. Pathoplasty usefully shifts the site of pathology from persons embedded in the larger system onto the structures and institutional culture surrounding them. 

From this perspective, emotional outbursts and interpersonal conflicts within a workplace are not treated as individual failings, but as symptoms of an underlying institutional malady. Extending this analysis, the relationship between the culture of an institution and surrounding society snaps into focus. As Tema Okun has pointed out, workplace cultures of imposed urgency (“hurry up and wait”), competitiveness, austerity, perfectionism, opaque decision making, power hoarding, paternalism, fear of open conflict, emphasis on quantity over quality, individualism, “either/or” thinking, can thus be understood as manifestations of the ideology of white supremacy.

Question 7: What do you think is the most important question or issue about the role of museums that arose during YoU?

Many museums suffer from a crisis of accountability. They claim to serve everybody. This is an impossible task. The interests of the people with power over a museum are systemically separate and inimical to the interests of people without power. This tension is apparent in the ways museums often pursue infinite growth at the sake of maintenance and care of what they already have. The question that arose for me is what can we do as artists in the face of this unsustainability. How can we intervene in institutions that don’t want to change?