1.11 / Instigators

Social Work: Politics, Police, and the Law in Art, Part 2

By Matthew David Rana March 24, 2010

Interview with HUSH

 Just because something is illegal does not make it wrong, nor does something being legal make it right. —A.Whitney Brown [1]

American comedian A. Whitney Brown’s comments on the false equivalence between law and morality recall the problematic Giorgio Agamben cites in his 2005 book State of Exception as “life’s non-relation to law.” For Agamben, the law functions as a powerful regulatory instrument that exercises an unfounded sovereignty over life. He states a truly political act is not active participation in established political structures or defiant acts of protest. Rather, a political act demonstrates the fundamental non-relation between life and law, replacing sovereignty with self-sufficiency. Separating the questions of right and truth from legal constructs, and placing them squarely in the realm of ethics and forms of self-relation, Agamben attempts to restore the sanctity of life itself. When it is not reduced to the fact of biological survival, or a means of political resistance, (self-sufficient) life assumes a politics in and of itself. In effect, this forces us to reckon not only with who we are, but with how we might use, give form to, and shape our freedom.

It is precisely this kind of revelatory self-sufficiency that forms the basis for the aptly named artist collaborative HUSH. In the eleven years the group has been active, HUSH has engaged in illegal acts of surveillance, sodomy, and narcotics trafficking to create works that push the boundaries of the law and its relationship to life. The group has exhibited research-based and performance projects in Portugal, Brazil, and Venezuela, including the 2007 Silver Smuggle, in which the artists smuggled 200 kilos of stolen Credit Suisse silver—valued at nearly $130,000—from a bank in Boston to a gallery in Lisbon.

We first heard about the group in 2003 as undergraduates, when a version of their project Fourteen States of Sodom (a 1999 video documenting the artists breaking sodomy laws in all of the 14 states in which it was then still criminalized) was screened at the now defunct Donkey Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico.[2] For this contribution to Art Practical, we contacted the gallery in Lisbon where the duo showed Silver Smuggle. After some convincing, they agreed to contact HUSH on our behalf.

The members of HUSH are notoriously reclusive, and virtually no documentation of their work exists, except for a handful of bootleg videos and a limited edition novel, both of which circulate in extremely small numbers. For obvious legal reasons, they do not allow photographic documentation or reproduction of their projects. Although their membership is fluid and varies depending on the project, HUSH consists primarily of Canadian-born “Hue” and “Sheila,” who is Australian. After nearly two months of delays, missed communications, and much suspicion and distrust on their part, on February 14, 2010, we were able to conduct the following interview via Skype. We later learned the two individuals with whom we spoke might have been hired to play the duo. The following is a transcription of that interview.

Eric Garduño: Matthew and I have been trying to follow your work since we first saw a version of Fourteen States of Sodom seven years ago, but there are almost no breadcrumbs. In a time when every artist has a website, blog, or Twitter feed, you guys don't even have a phone. There is mystery and there is obscurity. How do you avoid the latter?

Sheila: We're not bothered by obscurity. For our own safety, we maintain distance from the public eye and that includes the art community. I know many people view our lifestyle as a strategic ploy. We move around a lot and stay low, but that has nothing to do with any kind of strategy as far as the art world is concerned. We do it out of necessity. I mean, you just have to look at what happened to Steve Kurtz to get a sense of what’s at stake. I think we’ve been really fortunate in that respect. In all honesty, there are not many galleries or institutions that are comfortable with the risk our works present, or the litigation that might result. We’re fortunate that we have had opportunities to show our work…and we’ve managed to avoid arrest or trial thus far.

Hue: To answer your question in a slightly different register, we don’t measure success by volume. There’s no need. As I’m sure you’re aware, the circle of influence within the art world—and here I mean real influence—is quite small. We don’t consciously cultivate mystery. Like Sheila was saying, in the art world, it has much more to do with the nature of people who narrate their lives with great specificity. They’re always looking for something to incorporate into their story, to add depth, intrigue, or substance that they find is lacking. Either this, or as is often the case, they are trying to actually obscure their own story for whatever reason. These are, at a very fundamental level, people who want what they can’t have. Fortunately for us, this has worked to our advantage. [laughs]

S: But at a certain point, the art market’s incredible branding power becomes unavoidable. Every detail of an artist’s life is potentially applied in the fabrication of their persona. That’s something we want to avoid if we can. For example, Tino Seghal’s refusal to fly has been widely publicized and consistently spun to reflect a romanticized notion of transatlantic maritime travel, which I think is a blatant omission of the more obvious possibility that, like millions of people, he is simply afraid to fly.

Matthew Rana: But you also create a narrative that seems to reference a genre of caper or heist films. Are you consciously framing your work along those lines? Or is it just part of your lifestyle?

H: Are we artistocrats? [laughs] The reality of the heist is much more mundane than novels and films suggest. Is it a world full of appropriate levels of secrecy and caution? Yes, but I would hardly call our narrative particularly literary or filmic. Each of our projects requires its own frame. The trajectory or narrative of our work is always changing. Certainly, the execution of Silver Smuggle reads like a heist film, but our motive more closely resembled David Hammons selling snowballs on the street than committing the perfect crime. We were interested in the relationship between commodities, currency, and geography, as well as how art as a concept can transform the value of goods, even those that form the basic foundation for the world economy. In that way, art has enormous power to subvert political and financial structures. Art is one of the few economies in which the cost of production has almost no bearing on the price to the consumer. It is also—and this is crucial to our interest in the commercial art market in general—an industry without any external regulation or oversight.

MR: How do you negotiate what seems to be a position of privilege? Are there different consequences or ramifications for someone breaking the law within the art context? Does its framing as art let you off the hook to some degree? In other words, why is this art and not crime? Do you even make that distinction?

H: Framing an illegal act as art doesn’t remove any potential consequences or ramifications. That’s why we have to live the way we do, and why the art we make involves so much risk. We don’t enjoy any special privilege where the law is concerned. On the other hand, we have the rare opportunity to contextualize our actions. Because of that ability, in many countries, especially in Latin America, we are viewed more as activists than as criminals. The power to contextualize one’s actions as critical, political, fundamental, or leisurely is simultaneously the power to imply the appropriate judicial and social response to that action. This is really no different than the power that we give attorneys in court and the media in general.

S: In any case, it’s often not governments or officially sanctioned authorities who pose the greatest risk to us. Once you start doing the kind of work that we do, you inevitably run into a fair amount of ruthless characters.

H: Although technically speaking, designating what we do as artwork–and this the case with the ephemera and the various documents that we tend to show–allows us some leeway in terms of functioning as evidence in a court of law. The courts have not yet developed a very sophisticated way of dealing with artworks. In terms of their sale and resale, yes. But in terms of their actual status as fiction or reality, or their impact on life? That line is extremely blurry. I suppose we have Plato to thank for that. [laughs]

MR: From what I understand, you both have criminal records. If crime is your work, how did you become involved in the art context?


________

Eric Garduño is an artist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has exhibited object and non-object based projects both nationally and internationally. His creative research employs diverse disciplines to investigate “fleeting lacunae” with an emphasis on site-specificity. He holds an MFA from Yale University, and currently teaches drawing at the Santa Fe Community College.

 

S: I wouldn’t say crime is our work. But there was a time when we broke laws to support ourselves. I wonder, is that criminal?

H: It’s true. At times, we have both relied on illegal activity to support ourselves. But we have always been interested in experimental music, film and theater, as well as conceptual and performance art. In 1999, while visiting the United States, we were shocked to learn that sodomy was still considered illegal in fourteen states. We decided to use our holiday to make a video work that involved the systematic violation of this antiquated legislation. We exhibited the Fourteen States of Sodom in Brazil in late 2002, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the remaining laws.[3] It caused a bit of a stir. It was fairly graphic even by Brazilian standards. [laughs] But the positive attention we got as a result gave us the confidence to begin conceiving other subversive actions.

S: For example, in 2004, a U.S.-based antiquites dealer who needed some documents sorted out contacted us through a mutual friend. These documents surrounded the resale of some very specific Assyrian artifacts he had recently obtained. After a brief meet and agreement on price, we discreetly acquired the papers he needed.

EG: Getting the documents was the piece?

H: No, but that job was the basis for Warak, a novella that maps certain connections between the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, the activities of a nineteenth-century occult society, and the Gilgamesh legend. It’s told primarily from the perspectives of a guard at the National Museum, a German medium, and Gilgamesh’s lover, Enkidu. These narratives interweave throughout the text, as each character tries to come to terms with the various issues of security, power, and territory that they see playing out around them. The book looks at these issues in different ways, through intimate relationships, divisions between body and mind, military operations, smuggling, archiving, esoteric rites, and so on. In the end, it was about questions of epistemology, as well as historical and cultural transfers of power.

S: Ultimately, we chose to write a work of fiction. We were extremely restricted in terms of the kind of things that we could actually show. There are some very powerful and fearsome concerns that are keen on antiquities from that part of the world. Needless to say, our dealer “friend” was not happy.

MR: How would you describe your lifestyle? What is to be gained by living outside the law such as you do?

H: Our lifestyle is one of discipline and caution punctuated by exhilaration. I wouldn’t recommend that anyone live like we do. It’s not comfortable, by any means. What we gain is a range of emotional experience that is wider than most, and an acute appreciation for everything we stand to lose, including our freedom.

S: I don't think that we live outside the law. The point of our work is not to escape the legal structures that govern society. I think it’s more of an attempt to experiment with those frameworks, to test their limitations and weaknesses.

MR: Right. Because some people don't have a choice but to live outside the law. For example, simply by their presence in a country, illegal immigrants break the law. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.

H: Citizenship is a strange concept. On one hand, it is a right to access certain resources, but on the other, it acts as a strict reinforcement of social and economic hierarchies on a global scale. About a year ago, I read that a Gallup poll taken in 135 countries found that 700 million people would like to emigrate.[4]

S: That statistic really brings to the fore the scale of the issue and the inadequacy of any legal system to deal with it. It’s true that immigration laws present complicated situations that have much to do with the reproduction of State power in a time when the State has a reduced role in determing how things actually operate, as well as with how power and influence are exercised on a global scale. So many of life’s laws are dictated by survival, whereas State laws are created for control. If you are forced to strictly abide by laws of survival, then you will almost always find yourself outside of State law.

H: There’s this false assumption—and this seems to happen a lot in the United States—that being legal is somehow always preferable to being illegal. Of course there is a difference between being illegal and doing something illegal. But the position of an illegal immigrant can actually be one of extreme creativity in terms of survival. Think about how you would negotiate the world in order not to be seen. Legitimating forms of visibility are not withheld from us. In fact, different modes of visibility are forced upon us all of the time. So much so that to actually choose illegitimacy, to go without being seen is unthinkable, deviant, and threatening. Speaking on a very personal level, living the way we do, we’ve learned a lot from illegal immigrants and so-called criminals and deviants.

But with regard to your comment about living outside the law, laws assume a universal subject. This universal subject is actually very specific. In fact, this universal ideal insists that we all become subject to very specific notions of justice and equality that find their basis in economic and social hierarchies. Laws are normalizing in that way. That's why most people find themselves in court or paying fines at some point in their life.

MR: Do you see your work as satirical or political in any way?

S: Inasmuch as it was an homage to Pasolini and Sade, Fourteen States of Sodom was definitely lifting a middle finger to conservative moralizing and religious rhetoric. But I think our work is fundamentally political.    

H: Our work also tends to bring to light the art world's capacity to expand itself into legally questionable territory. And this goes back somewhat to your earlier question about heist films. There is a vast and shadowy network of very smart, very able individuals whose job it is to make certain practices, sales, or acquisitions, appear legitimate from a legal standpoint. This fact goes virtually unrecognized by the commercial art world. There are actually quite a number of individuals operating at a high level in the art world who either engage in some less than savory dealings or have, to put it rather mildly, checkered pasts.[5] You wouldn’t believe the number of dealers who have had, at one time or another, deep ties to narcotics trafficking—no pun intended. [laughs] And this is not to mention the various characters sitting on the boards of major institutions who have ties to corporate entities operating at what, if we look at it honestly, are really the margins of legality. For example, look at Credit Suisse: the same year we did Silver Smuggle, a number of its employees were under investigation for money laundering, tax evasion, fraudulent banking, and operating without a banking license.[6] On the other hand, the bank also maintains a dedicated “art unit,” has sponsored exhibitions in places like Moscow and Dubai, and has aligned itself with many major galleries and art institutions throughout the world.[7]

EG: Can you give us a sense of what you are currently working on?

S: We've taken several sections of the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (Patriot) Act as an outline for exploring moral and legal issues of privacy.[8] We've been researching stalking cases, as well as search and seizure precedents. We're working with a former special operations expert who is training us to use surveillance equipment and bypass security. The goal is to gather information about several strategic targets we've chosen. The process is both time-consuming and fascinating. Even the content that we gathered from our practice targets is incredibly intimate, disturbing, and moving.

MR: Hearing that reminds me somewhat of Trevor Paglen’s photographic work, or even certain projects by Sophie Calle.  But in this case, am I right in thinking that the targets are people? Who are you targeting?

H: Obviously, we can’t share that information at this point. Suffice to say, right now we want to bring other people into the work so that what you see is not just the object of an illegal act, but something with its own intimate content. In terms of rights to privacy and search and seizure, the line between legality and illegality is actually very difficult to distinguish. Because the laws governing search and seizure, far from being protective, are fundamentally a technology of law enforcement, or more broadly, what Foucault called the “the police.”

S: Earlier you asked about heist films, and I think that our current project has many parallels to that genre, along with spy films, particularly in the technology we're using and in the covert tactics we're learning. To follow someone without them knowing with cameras and long-range microphones is actually fairly easy, but to do it for several days takes an incredible amount of discipline and patience. Although at times, it feels like we are looking into a mise en abyme.

EG: Do you think this interest in stalking and surveillance came from living underground and feeling like you are constantly being watched or hunted?

S: The way we live can be isolating. Watching people very closely does give us some sense of interaction or connection, I think. And in a way, we've become a bit voyeuristic. But yes, this project has a lot to do with the experience of always being watched and the idea that you’re actually representable as a target. We’ve started to think outside of that somewhat. This goes back again to the idea of visibility and invisibility. I think that, in a kind of perverse way, we actually want to suggest that no one is watching.

________

NOTES:

[1] A. Whitney Brown, in conversation with Eric Garduño. November 29, 2009.
[2] Texas, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, Michigan, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, Kansas.
[3] Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S 553 (2003).
[4] Neli Esipova, and Julie Ray, “700 Million Worldwide Desire To Migrate Permanently.” Gallup.com. Nov. 2, 2009. http://www.gallup.com/poll/124028/700-million-worldwide-desire-migrate-permanently.aspx
[5] “Lawrence B. Salander Pleads Guilty in $120 Million Fraud Case.” http://www.artforum.com/news/
[6] Elzio Barreto, “Credit Suisse banker arrested in Brazil tax probe” in http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN2336321920080424
[7] https://www.credit-suisse.com/news/en/media_release.jsp?ns=40703
[8] http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:hr03162:%5D
[9] Michel Foucault. Security, Territory and Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78  ed. Michael Snellart, Graham Burchell, trans. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2007).

 

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