For our upcoming issue #111, we asked artists and art historians to formulate their thoughts and fears about the current political situation in America. In this context it is worth taking a look back at the work of Lee Lozano in order to question the extent to which the interlocking of political activism and art production, of cultural institutions and politics, has changed over the years. The article was published first in our issue 79, „Life at Work“.
The US-American artist Lee Lozano withdrew from the New York art scene at the end of the sixties. In her paintings, which were also on display at the last documenta, she translated in an imagery, at first reminiscent of comic strips, feminist topics of sexuality and domination, which subsequently led, also through the influence of Minimal Art, to monochrome-abstract forms.
Her idea of art was based on the conviction that art cannot be conceived without regarding all other areas of life, and that revolutions can consequently also only be considered as a whole. In this context, what does it mean, though, when Lozano states that she wants to dream instead of work?
Within the context of Lee Lozano’s ongoing art world rehabilitation, her statement to the Art Workers’ Coalition (awc) Open Hearing of 1969 has remained something of an embarrassment. The awc had been established that year to demonstrate for museum reforms (including those addressing the underrepresentation of Black and Puerto Rican artists) and greater control over the copyright, exhibition, and reproduction of artists’ work, issues that soon grew to encompass museums’ connections (particularly through their trustees) to policies supporting the Vietnam War. Uncharacteristic of the tenor of the Open Hearing, Lozano’s pronouncement bluntly and forcefully rejected the coalition’s underlying premise: that art could function as a semiautonomous realm of social struggle. “For me”, she began, in a three-sentence proclamation that stands out as much for its brevity as for its content, “there can be no art revolution that is separate from a science revolution, a political revolution, an education revolution, a drug revolution, a sex revolution or a personal revolution”. After refusing to separate museum reforms from those of galleries and magazines (a contention echoed by some of the meeting’s other speakers despite the group’s almost exclusive focus on MoMA), she concluded by maintaining, “I will not call myself an art worker but rather an art dreamer and I will participate only in a total revolution simultaneously personal and public”. Most troublesome to critically minded scholars is Lozano’s use of “dreamer”, a term redolent of the most regressive tendencies of nineteenth-century romanticism. Understood in this manner, her comments appear peculiarly out of time, as though, despite a decade of art-world developments (including Lozano’s own conceptualism), she extolled the most traditional attributes of artistic creativity – art as an imaginary refuge from the “real world” social, political, and economic struggles that the awc explicitly sought to engage. Lozano’s “total revolution” seems like sheer idealism, confounding but easily dismissible.
Lozano’s statement is anomalous within the context of the Open Hearing, but not necessarily in the way it has been received. Thus far overlooked is how closely her declarations echo those of the period’s radical, Situationist-affiliated left. On 10 October 1966, years before the awc began targeting MoMA, the New York-based collective Black Mask, founded by visual artists Ron Hahne and Ben Morea – and more widely known in its later incarnation, Up Against the Wall Motherfucker (aka The Motherfuckers) – undertook the shutting down of the museum as an act of protest against its tacit support of the Vietnam War. Fliers distributed on the occasion proclaimed, “We seek a total revolution, cultural, as well as social and political – let the struggle begin”. Throughout their brief but vocal existence, Black Mask consistently expressed the position that (anti)aesthetic action was valid only as part of a campaign of total revolt: “We have an art which is a substitute for living, a culture which is an excuse for the utter poverty of life. The call for revolution can be no less than ‘total’”. Black Mask specifically refused the kind of institutional identification that led the awc to model itself on the labor movement, wherein artist is to museum as worker is to factory (or student is to university). As Morea declared in the December 1966 issue of Black Mask, “Too long we have witnessed the weakening and eventual destruction of radical movements by their forced specialization. Obviously one must function within an area of personal confrontation be it the factory, the ghetto, or the university, but there must always be the inner direction of a totality. The labor unions’ concern only with wages and working conditions has all but emasculated their original radicalism”. Against such a factionalized reformism, Black Mask’s rhetoric posited as political subject the human being as a whole and focused on his or her self-organization of life: “Life, not survival – self-management, not subjugation must be the goal or there is no revolution.”
As students of the historical avant-garde movements of constructivism and dada, Hahne, Morea, and their associates pitted “life” against the alienation of “art” (as a separate cultural sphere) and the institutionalization of the museum. Regarded as an integral creative force, life not only opposed art (as a “false concept”), but also opposed labor, education, and, as the Situationists also contended, city planning. Endowed with a truly living culture, asserted an editorial in Black Mask number 1, “we can change the stultifying classrooms, the inhuman city, the concept of work when it is unnecessary and everything else which is crushing life instead of allowing it to grow fully”. Inherently opposed to artificial divisions, the concept of life in its totality was key to the idea of total revolution, but it was not simply an idealization, an empty and therefore easily valorized term. Instead, life was characterized as the very locus and terrain of struggle, where both repression (“the colonization of life”) and resistance were carried out. As explained in Black Mask number 9, in a rhetoric that anticipates current post-Situationist and post-Autonomist theory: “The struggle against this condition must be total, because the poverty against which we are struggling is total: it is the repressive organization of life in its entirety; depriving us the opportunity to be fully human. And when it is life in it[s] entirety (literally the planet and species) that is degraded by an encompassing culture predicated on Death, then the only struggles which we can afford to call ‘revolutionary’ are those which seek revolution in Totality: the creation of a new life in a new environment which we ourselves must construct”.
Lee Lozano, ohne Titel, 1969.
Presciently articulated by Black Mask was the dual aspect of what Michel Foucault would later describe as the contemporary regime of power: the “bio-political” regulation of populations, on the one hand, and the “anatomo-political” regimentation of the individual body, on the other. Black Mask specifically addressed life as an arena of struggle on both fronts. Yet, while consistently invoking the genocide in Vietnam and the civil rights struggles of African, Puerto Rican, and Native Americans (“Is there a racial crime worse”, they ask of the conditions facing Native Americans, “than the theft of life itself?”), the bulk of the group’s most innovative pronouncements focused on the micropolitical investment in and oppression of the individual, psychobiological life form. Indeed, given the proportion of ink and analysis devoted to it, the attempt to counter what the group deemed a counterrevolutionary “bourgeois character structure”, as expressed through “the actual needs of life and in its daily existence”, figured as much more important than their protests against MoMA or Wall Street. Drawing from sources that included, in addition to the historical avant-garde, Bertrand Russell’s ethical appeals to “humanity”, Sigmund Freud’s and (especially) Wilhelm Reich’s theories of sexuality and contemporary experiences with psychedelic drugs, Black Mask did not regard the body primarily as a site of liberated desire, but always as thoroughly imbricated in the same nexus of power-knowledge that made for its oppression. Indeed, for Black Mask, avant-garde aesthetics were intrinsically aligned with such investment: “The revolutionary urge of the creative man”, declared Morea in Black Mask number 2, “has always been a part of his desire for a deeper understanding of life and the forces which affect it”. The project and program, then, was one of “changing”, “directly” and in a “concentrated” manner, “the negative forces” investing the body. As explained in Black Mask in 1968: “[W]e must find our way back to the body; language must be made to destroy itself; we must find a way of communicating our feeling of our bodies, subverting all the scientific and historical categories that have so far only been agents of repression. More precisely, we must be aware of the significance of scientific description. It is valid only insofar as we are enslaved; it is because we are not. If we comprehend this then we are already in a position to resurrect our bodies from the clutches of bourgeois order. Nevertheless, the conditions for this resurrection is [sic] the development of a sex-revolutionary movement against the routine and order of bourgeois ‘life’. The condition of liberation – in the present – is the social affirmation of life”.
The body, language, science, sex: these were all issues of signature importance to Lozano. And it is precisely when read against the rhetoric of contemporaneous radical groups like Black Mask that Lozano’s statement before the awc becomes more legible. Her embrace of “a total revolution” and pointed rejection of both the coalition’s identification with labor and their concept of revolution as a series of distinct, institutional struggles (workers to factories, students to universities, artists to museums) resonate closely with the position of Black Mask. Provided the ubiquity of such rhetoric in 1969, particularly amongst the “head” community of drug users of which Lozano was a part, there would have been no need for her to have encountered Black Mask (or any similar group) directly. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile noting that as The Motherfuckers (who continued to call for total revolution and affirm life as a (bio)political category), they were not absent from the awc Open Hearing; they were cited by artist and poet Farman and quoted at length by painter (and Lozano associate) David Lee.
For Black Mask and The Motherfuckers, the pursuit of life meant direct action, engaged through their infamous predilection for violent confrontation, street battles, martial arts, gunplay and riots. Although Lozano was not immune to similarly problematic inflammatory rhetoric (“Artpigs run in fear from nyc revolution”), her project hewed much closer to the investigation “of life and the forces which affect it” that Morea attributed to the avant-garde. Whether engaged with perception, comportment, communication, sex, nourishment, monetary exchange, or waking and sleeping hours, Lozano’s conceptual works such as “Grass Piece” (1969; “Stay high all day, every day. See what happens”), “No Grass Piece” (1969), “Masturbation Piece” (1969), “Real Money Piece” (1969), “Dialogue Piece” (1969), “No-Info Piece” (1969; “which would be to live here in solitary confinement for as long as I could stand it”), “Diminished Consumption” (1970; “of calories, cigs, dope; of joy, energy [like dancing], emotions, intensity”) and others sought to investigate, regulate and ultimately transform the most intimate rhythms and habitual forms of everyday life, often on a profoundly corporeal register. In contrast to Lozano’s early paintings, which have been discussed in terms of the anarchic liberation of polymorphous sexuality, her conceptual work invariably entails intensely self-disciplinary examinations, replete with charts, timelines, and other similarly meticulous forms of documentation. As Dan Graham wrote about Lozano, “All personal responses (including those of external observers as reported to the artist) are noted by the artist as scientifically as possible and become grounds for later sets of experience-pieces”.
Lee Lozano, 1971
In their written form, Lozano’s “‘Life-Art’ pieces” serve simultaneously as the means to and recordings of psychophysiological transformations, as well as being the vehicles of their dissemination to a wider audience. Such conceptual work, far from being seen primarily as an exemplar of Lucy Lippard’s famously anti-commodity “dematerialization of the art object” (although, for Lozano, they fulfilled that role as well), might more properly be regarded as symptomatic emulations of the “written ectoplasm” that accompanies every body within an anatomopolitical regime. Lozano’s particular exercises of self-observation and regulation, however, were pursued as “counter-conducts”, opposed to the prevailing disciplinary order and the counterrevolutionary “character structure” that, for Black Mask, mediated between individual and social repression. As Lozano stated in 1969, “The only fight is the fight-my-programming, that is, it is the only kind of fighting I ‘approve of’”. It was on the level of the bodily, the anatomopolitical, where public and private overlap (somewhere between the “personal is the political” of the feminism that Lozano never embraced and the therapeutics of New Age that, at times, she uncomfortably approached), that Lozano’s politics, her total revolution, was to be engaged. For Foucault, a counter-conduct represented an attempt, as old as the development of discipline itself, “to escape direction by others and to define a way for each to conduct himself”. As Lozano put it more succinctly, “There are more & more freedoms to be invented, by mankind … We have to invent new freedoms”.
Around 1968, The Motherfuckers issued a leaflet entitled, “Revolution in Dreams”, which reaffirmed life as both the site of oppression (“repressed living as the/ experience of everyday life”) and the locus of potential freedom: “The Bossman (No-Balls/man) sees the threat of the Street whore luring ‘his’ young from the programmed possibility of their existence into the only real possibility of existence – luring the worker’s sons from factory smoke to the smoke of the burning factories – And now ‘living’ is possible for everyone.”
In 1969, a few months after the awc meeting, Lozano contemplated altering the label attached to her conceptual work. She had already considered reclassifying her “pieces” as “investigations”, a term that would have emphasized the power-knowledge nexus within which they operated. Now she pondered a somewhat more anomalous designation, including the expression that continues to trouble reception of her statement at the Open Hearing: “Consider switch from using word piece to dream or fantasy or find a better word than that. Reverie? Fancy? Phantasy? Conceit? Fantasy? Caprice? Dream?” If, for Lozano, “dream” could function as an effective synonym for the counter-hegemonic behavioral investigations of her “Life-Art” pieces, then her “art dreamer” may ultimately have been intended less as an idealist or romantic than as something of a partisan in contemporary anatomopolitical struggles.
Titelbild: Black Mask“-Protest, New York, 1967