Klaus Biesenbach, Zero Tolerance

What would our future be like with an artist president? MoMA PS1's Klaus Biesenbach talks "Zero Tolerance" and how art can be a form of doing politics by other means

"Zero Tolerance", a new exhibit at MoMA PS1, explores the role of artists in responding to and confronting repressive politics. It borrows its name from the controversial policing policy of ‘zero tolerance’ in New York City in the 1990s, which often strained relations between police and civilians. The exhibit seems timely in light of the recent developments in Ferguson, Missouri and unfortunately, all over the world.

Some works in the exhibit deal with NYC protest, such as the advocacy group ACT UP’s public service ads that addressed the devastation of HIV before the public was willing to talk openly about the virus. Other pieces consider political situations unfolding elsewhere, from rap performance in the Middle East to the notorious Pussy Riot group in Russia. Historical works provide insight into how art has evolved as a tool for protest and political action over time. 

In their recent interview with PS1 Director Klaus Biesenbach, The Creator's Project asked about his motivations for curating this exhibit, particularly at this moment in time. His response was relatable for anyone who keeps up with current events: "Basically watching the news every day, reading the papers, and being online made me want to do this show for the last three years. It feels like democracy is on the decline and [increasingly] you hear about liberties being cut or diminished. Recent draconian laws in Eastern Europe, the development in countries from China to Egypt to Istanbul questions of civil liberties and artistic freedom is increasing. It feels as if life in cities like Berlin and New York, the two cities I spend most of my life in, are islands in a vast ocean […] all of the freedom we have in these two big cities is not necessarily a given."

Of course art and protest have always been coupled in an odd marriage. Yet the landscape seems to be shifting as the threats to democracy change. Biesenbach goes on to explain the types of works and practices he selected for the exhibit, and what they represent. "In general, I am always looking for artists that can capture the most relevant content in the most innovative and most reduced form. I did not go away from this, but I made sure that every single work in "Zero Tolerance" is really dealing with a march, a parade, a protest, a demonstration, or any public artistic action that takes a political stance [and] is engaged in pressing issues in their mostly urban context.

From carnival floats to kissing police officers, Biesenbach plays with the connection between protest and performance art. As part of the "Zero Tolerance" exhibit, he led a conversation with members of Pussy Riot as a way to exemplify how artists use their own bodies in the public domain, making "their own actions object and subject, matter and material of their art, and therefore very vulnerable." In the case of Pussy Riot, Biesenbach points out the incredible courage it requires. Pussy Riot chose to stay and continue their work in Russia, despite the risk - proof that we must never underestimate the importance of artists in promoting our freedoms.

Click here to read The Creator's Project's full interview with Biesenbach. 

Photo Credit: Ofer Wolfberger