I read in an article that the letter ‘E’ is what you preferred to be known as towards the end of your life.1 I’m accepting this, as I cannot ask you or seek your consent. It’s 2020. I am writing about your famed decision to boycott women in 1971, and a selection of other withdrawals that have happened within the scope of art since. I am writing because negations, withdrawals and refusals fill me with such ambivalence that I keep returning to them as strategies in my own practice. I’m addressing this letter to you, even though I know you cannot read it nor respond.
I wanted to begin with Kai Althoff’s contribution to documenta (13) in 2012. For context, Althoff makes figurative drawings and paintings. However, at the 2012 exhibition the audience were presented with a letter penned by the artist on 24 May 2011. Addressed to Carolyn (Christov-Bakargiev), Althoff’s five-page, hand-written letter asks the documenta (13) Artistic Director to ‘let me go’. The angsty writing details how Althoff is feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, and wishes to be freed from their commitment to participate in documenta the following year. I am touched by Althoff’s letter, but it does make me wonder what happens when things are announced. Of course, announcing can be an act of empowerment. I think, for example, about how ‘queer’ and ‘crip’ have been reclaimed. But it can teeter on the edge of co-option, depending on who is doing the announcing.
A didactic panel accompanying Althoff’s letter stated that it had been ‘[e]xhibited on the initiative of Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and with the permission of the artist.’ I can only presume that the distress Althoff communicates through the letter is sincere, and that the letter isn’t an intentional act of institutional critique, or even an artwork. However, by framing Althoff’s absence within documenta (13) exhibition, Christov- Bakargiev makes it so.
Announced quietly on a page of one of your many notebooks, Decide to Boycott Women began in 1971 and lasted until your death in 1999.2 This gesture, which I understand as an artwork precisely because you announced it, has been widely acknowledged as a feminist critique of gender and patriarchal power structures. It permeated all aspects of your life — from refusing to address people you identified as women in the service industry, to disengaging from long-term relationships with friends like Lucy Lippard. If Althoff’s refusal is a can’t, I understand yours as a won’t.
Boycotting is a subversive political strategy — essential to its power is the act of announcing. I think about two artist-led boycotts that occurred within my direct circles. Firstly, the students of the Roski School of Art and Design, who gained international attention when they published an open letter stating that ‘due to the university’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.’ This followed close on the heels of the artist-led boycott of the 19th Biennale of Sydney (BOS) in early 2014. Concerned about the chain of connections between the BOS and offshore immigration detention centres, a group comprising 28 of the exhibiting artists wrote an open letter to the BOS Board of Directors, asking them to cut ties with founding sponsor Transfield. After the letter failed to achieve the desired outcome, five of the exhibiting artists published a Statement of Withdrawal:
While we have sought ways to address our strong opposition to Australia’s mandatory detention policy as participants of the Biennale, we have decided that withdrawal is our most constructive choice [...] we will not let this action be unnoticed.3
Indeed, the action did not go unnoticed, and the BOS subsequently ended their partnership with Transfield, including the resignation of their Chair (Director of Transfield Holdings).4
I think about your decision to boycott women, and I wonder if it was a withdrawal at all, or if it was perhaps the inverse: an act of acceleration? Originally suggested in the 1970s by French thinkers such as Deleuze, Guattari and Lyotard, accelerationism proposes that the only radical political response to capitalism is ‘[n]ot to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process”.’5 By manifesting a position whereby women don’t have the right to speak, Decide to Boycott Women took the patriarchal order to its logical conclusion.
One cannot exit a building without first entering it. And by this I mean, withdrawal is a tool for those who find themselves in the position of participant, those with access to the normative modes of participation, those who exist within the institutional structures. Decide to Boycott Women came two years after your boycott of the art world (General Strike Piece, 1969). But what about those who are not invited? Those who are institutionally invisible?
I can only presume from the information at hand, and hesitate to do so, that you identified as a woman. What position did that put you in? Caught between speaking and not speaking? Does the critique point outwards and inwards at the same time? In their letter to Carolyn, Althoff refers to the ‘turmoil within’, which reminds me of a passage by Andrea Fraser:
Just as art cannot exist outside of the field of art, I cannot exist outside of the field of art, at least not as what I am, which is an artist. And this is also the limit of institutional critique. I can attack those internal objects. I can rip at the walls of my institutional body. But I can’t tear it down completely, and I can’t leave it, because I would then not only cease to have an effect within the field; I would also cease to exist. Institutional critique has the structure of melancholia.6
I cried on the tram when I read that you are buried in an unmarked grave in Dallas, Texas.
With true admiration,
This essay is adapted from a chapter of Site Specific Illness, Jessie Bullivant’s MFA thesis, Academy of Fine Art, Helsinki, 2020.
company’s rights to use the Transfield name. The company, now named Broadspectrum, continues to operate Australian offshore detention centres. Source: J Wiggins and M Smith, ‘Transfield Services to change name to Broadspectrum as founders sever ties,’ [Australian Financial Review, 25 September 2015.[(https://www.afr.com/markets/business/transfield-services-to-change-name-to-broadspectrum-as-founders-sever-ties-20150925-gjum0b)