by Kim Nguyen
And so, a long goodbye. It is 2019. My brain still thinks the nineties were ten years ago, and my body tells me that we are hundreds of shorelines earlier than that. The hours are slow. I didn’t set out to write a farewell, but it strangely seems like a gentler framework than what this actually may be: a long-winded answer to the question of how do we write about something that never belonged to us?
These are fascist times. Often and more than I care to admit, I have uttered the words, “I do not know how to be of this earth anymore” to my friends, colleagues, and my loved ones. In truth, Pope.L said it better:
Hole theory is guided
By a lack to be with
The world and in so being
Be right with the world
With each passing year, indifference, borne out of a growing dispassion and dismay, consumes my professional existence. Coming up artist-run, I was well-versed in conversations around the increased professionalization and institutionalization of cultural spaces. Somehow making demands for better pay and working conditions meant less risk, less impulse, and the death of a scrappy, anti-authoritarian spirit. Stabilizing the ground beneath your feet was simultaneous with selling out, an acknowledgment that care could not be achieved without bureaucratization. This proclivity towards a noble poverty also meant that a degree of self-sacrifice, in service of community, of being the first to… or the only [blank] to… was expected for many of us. We were to be both grateful and precarious.
But I believed for a very long time that we could have it all. That we can be dedicated to collectivity, that we could support artists above and beyond (to skew towards the top rather than always towards the bottom), that our staff could be remunerated appropriately, that work-life balance did not equate to lack of commitment, and that having these things did not mean that rebellious urges had to be stifled. We’re punk but we pay. Our job was to give it all away, and a can-do attitude, wrapped in just enough righteous arrogance, was enough. In this dream, we could uphold a modicum of decency and care for who we work with, who we work alongside, and who we work for, and tactical generosity could generate a space that was hospitable and fertile for those of us operating outside of white modalities. It saddens me deeply to give in to a cynical impossibility around this. I believe that these spaces can exist, I believe these spaces do exist. But I do not believe that all spaces are capable of it.
As one older fellow once told me: “Here’s the thing: you cannot take some parts of institutionalism without taking it all.” He was right. There are no good parts versus bad parts, or bad parts without good parts, or good untainted by bad. There are no consummate institutions created out of consummate conditions. There are just parts. And none of them are clean. These parts are not self-reflexive nor are they perfect. You cannot use these parts to take apart other parts. We must take them all.
It has been difficult for me to say goodbye, to walk away, to admit that for many of us there is too much struggle within these houses, until there is only struggle. We make our little corners bearable through our work, by adhering to our own rules and positions, but our work becomes so consumed within the problematic structures of the institution it becomes illegible. Our efforts to critique can end up mirroring, replicating, and reifying strategies of power, and our bodies are used to uphold the aesthetic of racial equity while delaying racial justice. I, and so many of my colleagues and loved ones, feel adrift.
We didn’t begin this way, even if these places did. Somehow over the years our steadfast faith in revolution and justice in the institution shifted. I, and so many of my colleagues and loved ones, are the embodiment of capitalist exploitation. We have been brought in to diversify staff and boards, so that predominantly white organizations can claim they are making meaningful attempts at shifting the programmatic status quo. We are expected to be informants and investigators, to provide access to “undiscovered” talent, to right cultural wrongs and missteps, to locate institutional weakness for optics but are not given the tools or the autonomy to make change. Survival in these spaces is contingent on acquiescing to white ideals of management and operation.
The seeds of exploitation are too bitter to consume—our lives are not valued in these houses, and as much as we want these parts to treat us like human beings, we come up short. We somehow cannot take the parts that humanize us without being given the ones that tokenize, humiliate, and profit from us. Offerings of safe spaces, of ham-fisted attempts at diversification, of outright refusals to act, excuses, excuses, excuses that insist next month, next year, next time, never, never, never. We (and our paid and unpaid labour) are welcome until you are forced to acknowledge and reckon with our bodies. As Maria Hupfield and Regan de Loggans proclaimed at an intervention at this year’s Whitney Biennial—you want our art but not our people.
Cultural institutions have become terribly boring at best, and offensive and plundering at worst, in their unwillingness to evolve, to adapt, to divest. There is no romance around loss, as if there was once this pious, apolitical place, dedicated to THE IMPORTANCE OF ART! (the serious, real kind), with its hands clean of theft, oppression, or dispossession of land. We are all plagued by the same colonial condition. It is a sickness that goes unchecked, feeding off of a fear of losing authoritative power, of an obscene obsession with ownership, of a delusion that what happens out there has nothing to do with what happens in here. And this delusion steers institutional impotence—the notion that empathy lives elsewhere means that expressing even a degree of concern is an admission of guilt. It insists that this is a house of critical thought and not critical action (as if they should be divorced, see: FORM VS CONTENT, debate #47483355967089). The vastness of terrible in which we live is somehow so overwhelming, so extensive, so insidious, that it is futile to even acknowledge its existence, as critical action is inherently compromised within these white walls.
What does it really mean, to care for artists and art workers? To care for a place? What does it really mean to be a place that is hospitable to our bodies? What are ethical interactions in houses of critical thought and not of critical action? The reality is that “care” and “hospitality” are too often wielded as justification for hierarchy, for further entrenchment into capital, for retaining power. These are soft words for ownership and dominance, a disguise for the imperial projects of conquest and labour and the administration of colonized people. It is a conceit that lives within all the chatter around progressive politics and the white liberals who get fiery about justice but keep their jobs, keep their friend’s jobs, and keep the keys. If you build it they will come, they insist. But none of them ask who is doing the building? And on whose land has this building taken shape?
It is a crisis, indeed. Friend, I don’t need to tell you that American capitalism is built on settler colonialism. We both know that the foundations of “freedom,” our knowledge and education, our history, are all constructed on the pillaging of land and life. As we hear more and more calls for our institutions to decolonize, for our schools to implement decolonial methodologies, for us to adopt decolonial ways of thinking, we are left in a contradictory place. These calls feel urgent, necessary, and completely hollow. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang remind us, decolonization is not:
“converting Indigenous politics to a Western doctrine of liberation; it is not a philanthropic process of ‘helping’ the at-risk and alleviating suffering; it is not a generic term for struggle against oppressive conditions and outcomes. The broad umbrella of social justice may have room underneath for all of these efforts. By contrast, decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Decolonization is not a metonym for social justice.”1
Tuck and Yang make clear that the pursuit of critical consciousness and social justice can be understood as settler moves to innocence, or “diversions [and] distractions which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege.”2 Institutions, in their efforts to decolonize, are reproducing colonial dispossession through the performance of settler moves to innocence. Dirty money gets kicked off our boards but the cheques are still cashed, declarations are made for gender parity and racial diversity in programming and collections but museum leadership remains 88% white, land acknowledgments are used facetiously in settler biographies, and everyone misinterprets intersectionality for interdisciplinarity. We are swimming in well-meaning gestures that perpetuate colonial power relations and ensure settler futurity.
Social justice work, even on its best mornings, can evade the complicated reality of the repatriation of land and resources to Indigenous people. This is not to negate the overall value or impact of justice work, but to highlight the fact that there is no singular shared decolonial desire amongst all parties. The immigrant, postcolonial, non-white project may not be aligned with decolonization at all. Decolonization that is substantive and effective is bound to Indigenous sovereignty, and there is no decolonial future without Indigenous self-determination, without Black liberation, and without anti-capitalism. We must take the buildings apart, brick by brick, part by part, until the basement is gutted and the attic is ash. The foundations must be drowned.
But bad parts are not without good, as we recall. Many cultural workers would contend that aesthetic contributions can, and do, serve the larger project of decolonization. David Garneau argues that the work is not a separatist project alone, stating that, “rather than centre our lives on anti-racist and anti-colonial work [and] expend our creative energy reacting to dominant others,” Indigenous peoples are turning to “positive production, to non-colonial activities, to reviving Aboriginal epistemologies, ontologies, metaphysical and material practices and adapting them to contemporary lived realities.” It is a sustained process of complicating and unpacking colonial institutions for mutual benefit.3
Cultural decolonization is an incessant struggle, one intended to make both Indigenous and settler peoples recognize that the colonial legacy is ours, one we all inherit, and that it informs every individual and institution on this land. Garneau calls for the work to see beyond the unsettling of settlers, to focus instead on how settlers can learn to exist as non-colonial persons within Indigenous spaces.4
Where does that leave this place? We know that decolonization must include an actual withdrawal of colonial power, and as long as we are on occupied territory it remains a conceptual rather than lived transformation. In all the ways there is so much work to be done—legally, economically, socially, and spatially, in your heart and in my mind. But simply doing the work is not enough. How do we go on, and where do we go? Maybe we stop seeking answers and live in the questions. We consider Garneau’s predilection for the term non-colonial over decolonization, as it stems from an affinity with practices that pre-exist colonization. He admits that those “re-creations are imaginary, too,” but it is a fiction that comes from a place of joy rather than occupation.5
This is a feeling the both of us have also forgotten, along the way.
We are, after all, a type of family. Constructed around ideals, false and fledgling, but ideals nonetheless. We start things because we have faith in alternate futures and we sustain them in solidarity with those that came before. We subscribe to an understanding that our work is tied to a form of responsibility, which may be misguided and without success. But friend, let us not forget the most important of all: we are keepers and not owners. We stand together as unconditional believers of the decolonization of land & water & systems & knowledge.
We’re punk but we pay, and payment means redistribution of resources, privilege, and power. Our job was never to give it all away. It was to give it all back.
In these slow hours we try to remember how we began, before these places. Ungrounded, resistant, with stars in our eyes about the transformative potential of art. Operating from a space of both possibility and productive doubt, working in houses where improbable beauty, unbearable ideas, and unconventional imaginaries could become entangled and untangled. The houses proved spurious, as did the stars in our eyes, but the capacity to conceive of an elsewhere endures.
And so we say goodbye to this house, as we depart for another place, somewhere beyond the limits of articulation, somewhere without, and without, and without.
Somewhere, and not of this earth.
This text was originally commissioned by Yale Union on the occasion of the transfer of ownership of the land and historic building from YU to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a Native-led national organization committed to mobilizing Native artists, culture bearers, communities, and leaders.
1: Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2012): 21.
3: David Garneau, “From Artifact Necropolis to Living Rooms: Indigenous and at Home in Non-colonial Museums.” Talk as part of the Indigenous Methodologies and Art History conference held at Cornell University on April 29, 2016, hosted by the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) and the Department of the History of Art and Visual Studies.
4: ibid, “Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization,” FUSE Magazine, vol. 36 no. 4 (2013): 15-16.
5: ibid, “From Artifact Necropolis to Living Rooms…”