Thomas (T.) Jean Lax and Cameron Rowland
Continuous Refusal, Collective Refusal
How do black collectivity and queer intimacy refuse the category of property? What is made possible when we imagine the tradition of black radicalism as continuous, collective work rather than an inheritance in which individuals accumulate knowledge, or become subjects of history? In this tradition, could we exist together across time, outside the patrimony of ownership or the lure of emancipation as “something akin to freedom” as described by Harriet Jacobs?
This event was moderated by Tina Campt (Brown University) and Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (RISD) and presented by the Brown Arts Initiative and Black Visualities Initiative at Cogut Institute for the Humanities, with additional support from the Rhode Island School of Design and the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration at Yale University. It has been edited for reading.
Tina Campt: Collaboration is at the center of the Black Visualities Initiative, which is first and foremost about bringing artists, students, scholars, and activists into conversation to think about the role of visual culture, both in relation to the long history of black dispossession and its potentially transformative role in creating new possibilities for living and imagining black life otherwise. The practice of collaboration is also critical to Cameron and Thomas’s respective and collaborative work. With this in mind, I am grateful for the partnership with the Brown Arts Initiative and would like to thank Chira DelSesto, Thalia Field, Greg Picard, and Shawn Tavares, as well as Damien Mahiet and Kit Salisbury at Cogut. I am also equally grateful to my two partners, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa at RISD and Tavia Nyong'o at the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration at Yale University. Tavia will introduce our speakers and their conversation will be followed by a discussion with Stanley.
Tavia Nyong'o: How can we enter a gallery, view eleven bicycles, including children's bicycles seized by the police and sold at auction for two-hundred and thirty-seven dollars, and not bear witness to an ongoing war against impoverished and racialized communities in which the museum and the university are complicit? Cameron Roland is an artist who makes visible these institutions, systems, and policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic injustice. Their research-intensive work centers around the display of objects and documents whose provenance and operations expose the legacies of racial capitalism and underscore the forms of exploitation that permeate everyday life. Their work renews traditions of institutional critique and employs system aesthetics to reveal the afterlives of slavery in contracts, leases, mortgages, encumbrances, and asset forfeiture. In tracing this ongoing process of land and capital accumulation through racial dispossession, Rowland's work interrogates the possibility of reparation. They do so with a combination of rigor and sensitivity that manages to scale the world-historical down to ephemeral fragments and indelible traces that lead viewers of their exhibitions deeply implicated in the systems they confront. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Rowland’s work has been exhibited in the São Paulo Biennial, the Whitney Museum of Art, Vienna Secession, Artists Space, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, among other venues. Their work is represented in public collections, including those of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2019, Rowland won the MacArthur Genius Award.
How can art curation do justice to its root meaning as an act of care? What might it mean to take care of the collective ephemeral and improvisatory practices through which black, queer, and minoritarian people imagine life otherwise? Thomas J. Lax has devoted their career to pursuing these questions for seven years at the Studio Museum in Harlem and more recently at MoMA, where they were named Curator of Media and Performance in 2019. Some highlights of their curatorial career include Queer Pier Art & Archives on the arch and occasion of the ten-year anniversary of FIERCE, a queer youth of color collective When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South at the Studio Museum—a show which queried the category of “outsider” art—the 2015 edition of PS1’s quinquennial Greater New York; and Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done at MoMA, where they are also preparing the exhibition Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the present, which considers the key role of independent black gallery spaces. Lax is also a teacher, a mentor, and a gifted writer. Their work on all these fronts reveals a steadfast determination to name the tensions and contradictions around the work they do with and for communities who have been and remain excluded from the institutions and systems of value that define modern and contemporary art. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia University, Lax was awarded the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, and in 2019, was a Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellow.
Thomas (T.) Jean Lax: Thank you for the warm introduction, Tavia. I also wanted to thank Stanley and Tina for the invitation to speak in Providence in the context of the Black Visualities Initiative, and Sean and Greg for their support. It’s an honor to be part of the community you’re creating, and even though we're over here and you're over there, we’re nevertheless together. In titling this conversation: Continuous Refusal, Collective Refusal, Cameron and I follow an echo of the collective of which Tavia and Tina are a part—Practicing Refusal—as well as Tina’s theorizations on refusal which have been so important to Cameron and me, like many of us. I understand this idea of black refusal to be about an insistence on our future and a study of embodied, counterintuitive poses. Stasis or the holding of opposing forces is one of these poses, which Tina describes as: “neither an absence nor cessation of motion;” but “a continual balancing of multiple forces in equilibrium.”1 This equilibrium hums in us tonight.
Cameron Rowland: As Thomas describes, we wanted to orient our conversation around the ways that refusal and the refusal of property, and that which property confers, is a collective practice across the black radical tradition; that is to say that different forms of refusal operate in conjunction with each other through time. So rather than thinking about this as an accumulated individualized inheritance, it could be regarded as a togetherness, a togetherness that contravenes the individualist expectations of freedom. As Stephanie Camp writes of absenteeism, as practiced among the enslaved: “The distinction between individual and collective resistance, then, offers only an aphoristic description of truancy in practice. . . . Just as the difference between the individual and collective resistance is misleading, so is the separation of political principle and personal sentiment.”2 Following Camp's framing of the distinction between individual and collective resistance as “misleading,” I think we'd like to discuss some of the ways we're imagining our work as part of being together in refusal.
TJL: A short note on format: Continuous Refusal, Collective Refusal is a “call and call” amongst friends. As Tina mentioned, Cameron and I will each offer some context for our respective practices and then describe one of our collaborations together. We’re thrilled to be joined afterwards by Stanley. I’ll begin by describing two projects I co-organized at The Museum of Modern Art. The first is an exhibition on Just Above Midtown or JAM, a commercial art gallery and a self-described laboratory for African American artists and artists of color, led by Linda Goode Bryant between 1974 and 1986. Linda and I are currently working on this show, asking on a weekly, even daily basis, how the past continues to live in the present, and how a gallery that was founded in the 1970s to create an alternative to the museum might live at MoMA in 2022. Linda and I have asked this question perpetually, and over the last three years, we have asked it directly to the artists who showed at JAM. When the director of the Studio Museum, Thelma Golden, asked David Hammons—an artist who had famously shown at the gallery—about doing a retrospective exhibition about JAM, Hammons replied, “You should just turn off all the lights.” Implied in his statement was that the gallery had thrived not by selling the art necessary to pay its electric bills, but rather by evacuating the value of art and imbuing its context—even when empty of all art to sell—with the capacity to give us the distinct things that we need.
This is one of the ways I understand the continuous, collective work Cameron and I hope to practice in what follows. How might the stakes of different time periods touch one another? How can we both care for and contest the culture produced and the circles that receive it? I don't think that when this exhibition opens, in all likelihood, you'll walk into a darkened gallery (although who knows) but the germ of this idea will be in there. Continuity is also filled with breaks, ruptures, and refusals; to reanimate or extend the life of an artwork into the present is not an attempt to mimic artistic intention or to reproduce the original context, but rather to renegotiate the work’s constituent terms, especially when those terms exist in a darkened space, seemingly outside of the work of art. For the remainder of my time, I'll speak on another exhibition: a recent interpretation of a historical space, Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, [fig. 1] which I co-organized in 2018 with Ana Janevski and Martha Joseph, among many others in our curatorial department. This exhibition centered around Judson Dance Theater, a group of interdisciplinary artists who briefly came together for two or three years in the early 1960s, working in a church in Greenwich Village. Our show was motivated by an argument about group work defined in two ways. Group work described by Judson was a site of assembly, a workshop where the artwork was collectively produced and received.
Group work also describes the process through which history matters to the present and the way it is narrated by a curatorial and artistic team who come together to debate the stakes of this work in the present and perhaps for the future. Rather than attempting to offer a panoramic view of this project, I will home in on one paradigmatic example of how this idea of group work played out in a set of relationships. The example offers an occasion to think about how an artwork made in the past continues to live in the present, and how relationships between artists (and potentially to people who work in institutions like museums) animate the ongoing lives of artworks.
Consider Simone Forti’s See Saw from 1960 [fig. 2]. In the early sixties, Forti premiered in downtown Manhattan as part of a series of works she called Dance Constructions. As indicated by their title, each blurred the distinction between dancing, construction, sculpture, and performance. The constructions were made of inexpensive materials—like plywood and rope—and the dances were generated by manipulating and moving these objects, or by following a set of rules that frequently push the performers to their physical limits. While their actions were ordinary—they leaned, they whistled, they stood—their social significance was revealed via the performers’ interactions.
See Saw used a recognizable form: the teeter-totter associated with childhood playgrounds. As documented in this photograph, the work was performed in 1961 at Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street by the artists Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris. Forti and Morris were married at the time, while Rainer and Morris would later get together. In this iteration of the work, Rainer and Morris assemble the seesaw in real time, placing the plank on the sawhorse; they balance on the plywood, shifting their weight up and down. At one point, Rainer shrieked while Morris read from the art newspaper ARTnews. Reflecting on the work, Forti said that the performers enacted a “domestic drama.” As the performers stood on the plywood and tried to maintain equilibrium, they inevitably shifted up and down, producing a physical manifestation of the oscillations that occur between two friends, artistic collaborators, or lovers. MoMA acquired See Saw for its collection in 2016. The work does not exist in the physical form you see here [fig. 2], but rather as a set of relationships. To be very clear, this does not sit in MoMA’s collection storage and the entirety of its materiality exists in the relationships I will describe. Working with Forti for over two years, my colleagues Stuart Comer and Ana Janevski developed instructions for the work’s future constructions and performances, partnering with Simone, as well as the organization Danspace Project, to create a set of workshops for performers to learn the work. As Janevski has said, the transmission of the work happens through study, through collective gestures from one body to another.
Forti’s prompts for See Saw are at once precise and capacious. She stipulates, as the one requirement, that the two performers who sit across from one another have an existing relationship. In 2018, when Ana, Martha, and I came together to co-organize the exhibition on Judson Dance Theater, we included this work as a key forerunner to Judson. We invited the dancers and choreographers Will Rawls and Andros Zins-Browne to offer their collaborative interpretation of the work. Rawls describes his practice as exploring “the instability of identity and form afforded by live performance.” For his part, Zins-Browne identifies his interest in how “the human body, movement, and matter can interact until a certain melting point is reached and the diverse media appear to take on each other’s properties.” Both knew Forti’s work and met with her to make their interpretation. During the rehearsals, Will and Andros invited a third performer, Martita Abril, a performer, artist, and teacher, who is also on the staff of the organization Movement Research (MR), to perform in the work with them. In this work, the trio echoed the shape of the work’s earlier triangulation [fig. 3 & 4]. Midway through the performance Will says, “Hi Simone,” to which Andros responds, “Good to see you again, we just have a few questions for you.” I offer one of their questions here:
In your notes for See Saw, you mention the word domestic life and I was wondering about it, I guess. We're interested in a different kind of “domestic” than the one you might have been talking about.
Something like what’s playing out right now. A domestic drama . . . that we’ve seen in a lot of places.
We’re also curious about this word you keep using, “equilibrium”? It’s a funny word. . . . and this idea that I’m here and you’re over there––it’s not just an idea. We’re in this together, but being on the bottom doesn’t mean you’re weaker. It’s a beautiful idea.
Refusal and intimacy, conflict and vulnerability, domestic, doméstica; as Will says, “domestic life, I was wondering about it.” Will, Andros, and Martita; two clanks, two sides of the plank, and the fulcrum too. The idea that I’m over here and you’re over there. Not just an idea.
CR: Thank you so much for sharing. I remain so inspired by the ways that you allow for these connections amongst us over time, they relate to what I’ve been thinking about around being together as well. Over the past six years or so, I’ve been processing the capacity of an artwork to materialize the relations of reparations. Part of my effort has been to foreground the multiplicity that reparations hold, and to think about that multiplicity as it extends beyond the scope of practicality. The tradition of pursuing reparations as a black feminist practice across generations includes seminal figures such as Callie House, Queen Mother Audley Moore, Johnita Scott, and Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, all of whom have, in their respective times, created collective ground for insisting on and reimagining what reparations might be. In my mind, this tradition marks a refusal to accept the validity of property derived through slavery and its afterlives. Reparations, then, necessarily contest the retention of this property, and poses a challenge to the definition, formation, and existence of property. The variety of conceptions of what reparations might be is part of its capacity. This plurality of reparations acknowledges the impossibility of undoing past violence, while necessitating the ongoing and endless work of repair.
As a tradition that continues to be animated and reanimated. Farmer-Paellmann’s lawsuit was the first to pursue reparations from corporate entities enriched from the economy of enslavement, as recently as 2002 to 2007. The C-SPAN coverage of the Millions for Reparations March in August 2002 helped build attention for Farmer-Paellmann’s case. Although the court declined to acknowledge the terms of her claim and to rule in her favor, the case has dramatically impacted my and many others’ conceptions of what reparations might be.
This was the basis for the work, Disgorgement, made in 2016. Disgorgement consists of a Purpose Trust that holds shares in what was formally Aetna—now CVS—until federal reparations are paid, at which point the contents of the Trust are transferred to the federal body in charge of distributions, as a corporate addendum. Farmer-Paellmann’s capacity to conceive of reparations, not as a tort payment for damages, but as repayment of unjustly enriched profits residing within corporate entities, outlines the ways that reparations discourse exceeds the scope of dominant legal, economic, and political practice. It has caused me to ask: if the regime of property was integral to the violence of slavery and colonization, how might we imagine reparations as something other than the redistribution of property? This has been a guiding question in my attempts to conceive of reparations as the reduction, relinquishment, and antagonism of property and its value.
Many cite General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 as the origin of reparations claims. Like others, I had understood that forty acres and a mule had been promised to ex-slaves following the end of the Civil War but was never granted. In fact, during 1865, approximately 40,000 ex-slaves were resettled on the basis of possessory title with up to forty acres per family, only to have these lands taken away by the Andrew Johnson administration in 1866. Following Johnson’s orders to return these lands to the former Confederate owners, numerous former slaves refused to leave and refused to work for the master as slaves, sharecroppers, convict lease laborers, or in any other arrangement. In refusing to leave the property and planting it for subsistence rather than trade, the formerly enslaved collectively reduced the value of these properties. The refusal of land as property constitutes a form of reparations that I tried to articulate in the work Depreciation, made in 2018 [fig. 5]. Depreciation consists of a restrictive covenant recorded on one acre of land on Edisto Island, South Carolina. This covenant renders the market value of the land to be zero dollars. In thinking of the pursuit of reparations as a refusal of property, other violations of property may in turn be conceived of as reparative. Acts that violated the terms of enslavement, such as stealing away, working slowly, being truant, in addition to theft and arson, challenged the regime of ownership. These violations might simultaneously be regarded as resistant and reparative.
Figure 5. Cameron Rowland, Depreciation, 2018 Restrictive covenant; 1 acre on Edisto Island, South Carolina 40 acres and a mule as reparations for slavery originates in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15, issued on January 16, 1865. Sherman’s Field Order 15 was issued out of concern for a potential uprising of the thousands of ex-slaves who were following his army by the time it arrived in Savannah.1 The field order stipulated that “The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the Saint Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States. Each family shall have a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.”2 This was followed by the formation of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in March 1865. In the months immediately following the issue of the field orders, approximately 40,000 former slaves settled in the area designated by Sherman on the basis of possessory title.3 10,000 of these former slaves were settled on Edisto Island, South Carolina.4 In 1866, following Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson effectively rescinded Field Order 15 by ordering these lands be returned to their previous Confederate owners. Former slaves were given the option to work for their former masters as sharecroppers or be evicted. If evicted, former slaves could be arrested for homelessness under vagrancy clauses of the Black Codes. Those who refused to leave and refused to sign sharecrop contracts were threatened with arrest. Although restoration of the land to the previous Confederate owners was slowed in some cases by court challenges filed by ex-slaves, nearly all the land settled was returned by the 1870s. As Eric Foner writes, “Johnson had in effect abrogated the Confiscation Act and unilaterally amended the law creating the [Freedmen’s] Bureau. The idea of a Freedmen’s Bureau actively promoting black landownership had come to an abrupt end.”5 The Freedmen’s Bureau agents became primary proponents of labor contracts inducting former slaves into the sharecropping system.6 Among the lands that were repossessed in 1866 by former Confederate owners was the Maxcy Place plantation. “A group of freed people were at Maxcy Place in January 1866 …The people contracted to work for the proprietor, but no contract or list of names has been found.”7 The one-acre piece of land at 8060 Maxie Road, Edisto Island, South Carolina, was part of the Maxcy Place plantation. This land was purchased at market value on August 6, 2018, by 8060 Maxie Road, Inc., a nonprofit company formed for the sole purpose of buying this land and recording a restrictive covenant on its use. This covenant has as its explicit purpose the restriction of all development and use of the property by the owner. The property is now appraised at $0. By rendering it legally unusable, this restrictive covenant eliminates the market value of the land. These restrictions run with the land, regardless of the owner. As such, they will last indefinitely. As reparation, this covenant asks how land might exist outside of the legal-economic regime of property that was instituted by slavery and colonization. Rather than redistributing the property, the restriction imposed on 8060 Maxie Road’s status as valuable and transactable real estate asserts antagonism to the regime of property as a means of reparation. 1. Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, updated ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988; New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 71. 2. Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, Special Field Orders No. 15 (1865). 3. Foner, Reconstruction, 71. 4. Charles Spencer, Edisto Island 1861 to 2006: Ruin, Recovery and Rebirth (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2008), 87. 5. Foner, Reconstruction, 161. 6. Foner, 161. 7. Spencer, 95. Courtesy the artist and Maxwell Graham/Essex Street, New York
The collective work of resistance enacted continuously across the Caribbean over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries contributed to the declining productivity of the British colonies and the political economic interest in abandoning the West Indian plantation system. (Here, we can look at historical documents such as damage reports submitted by Jamaican plantation owners to parliament following the property destruction inflicted by the 1832 Baptist Rebellion). I consider these incursions on the value of property enacted and constituted by the enslaved as a mode of repair that we might continue to keep in mind as much of this same property continues to be inherited, exchanged, and to generate profits.
This framework of reparations is the basis for the five works entitled Encumbrance, made in 2020 [fig. 6]. Each of which consists of one of the five mahogany elements in the building at 12 Carlton House Terrace in London and a mortgage. 12 Carlton House Terrace is owned by the Crown Estate and is leased by the Institute of Contemporary Arts. These elements have been mortgaged by the ICA to Encumbrance Inc., a company I created for the purpose of holding these mortgages indefinitely. The debts will not be paid back, and Encumbrance Inc. will hold a security interest in these mahogany elements. The security interest will constitute an encumbrance on the future transaction of 12 Carlton House Terrace. This encumbrance diminishes the market value of the Crown Estate’s property. All of these works hinge on numerous forms of collaboration on a legal, institutional, and intellectual level. Thomas and I worked closely together in creating conditions to sustain Disgorgement until federal reparations are paid. I think Thomas’s conviction around their project is not only unique but is rare in a field where curatorial work is typically encouraged to stand as an extension of the institution. Because the stakes of what I’m working on are often in contention with the stated expectations of the institution, collaborating with someone whose larger project is aligned with my own is not only meaningful but allows for things that would not otherwise be possible.
Figure 6. Cameron Rowland, Encumbrance, 2020 Mortgage; mahogany double doors: 12 Carlton House Terrace, ground floor, front entrance The property relation of the enslaved included and exceeded that of chattel and real estate. Plantation mortgages exemplify the ways in which the value of people who were enslaved, the land they were forced to labor on, and the houses they were forced to maintain were mutually constitutive. Richard Pares writes that “[mortgages] became commoner and commoner until, by 1800, almost every large plantation debt was a mortgage debt.” Slaves simultaneously functioned as collateral for the debts of their masters, while laboring intergenerationally under the debt of the master. The taxation of plantation products imported to Britain, as well as the taxation of interest paid to plantation lenders, provided revenue for Parliament and income for the monarch. Mahogany became a valuable British import in the 18th century. It was used for a wide variety of architectural applications and furniture, characterizing Georgian and Regency styles. The timbers were felled and milled by slaves in Jamaica, Barbados, and Honduras among other British colonies. It is one of the few commodities of the triangular trade that continues to generate value for those who currently own it. After taking the throne in 1820, George IV dismantled his residence, Carlton House, and the house of his parents, Buckingham House, combining elements from each to create Buckingham Palace. He built Carlton House Terrace between 1827 and 1832 on the former site of Carlton House as a series of elite rental properties to generate revenue for the Crown. All addresses at Carlton House Terrace are still owned by the Crown Estate, manager of land owned by the Crown since 1760. 12 Carlton House Terrace is leased to the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The building includes four mahogany doors and one mahogany handrail. These five mahogany elements were mortgaged by the Institute of Contemporary Arts to Encumbrance Inc. on January 16th, 2020 for £1000 each. These loans will not be repaid by the ICA. As security for these outstanding debts, Encumbrance Inc. will retain a security interest in these mahogany elements. This interest will constitute an encumbrance on the future transaction of 12 Carlton House Terrace. An encumbrance is a right or interest in real property that does not prohibit its exchange but diminishes its value. The encumbrance will remain on 12 Carlton House Terrace as long as the mahogany elements are part of the building. As reparation, this encumbrance seeks to limit the property’s continued accumulation of value for the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate provides 75% of its revenue to the Treasury and 25% directly to the monarch. Courtesy the artist and Maxwell Graham/Essex Street, New York
TJL: The collaborative process that Cameron is describing began with their show at the downtown alternative arts organization, Artists Space, which was titled 91020000. 91020000 is a customer identification number that was assigned to Artists Space by Corcraft, a division of New York State’s Department of Corrections that conscripts incarcerated people to produce low-cost goods. Corcraft sold the materials of several of the works in the exhibition, including benches. By asking Artists Space to register with Corcraft and then using this number to name the work in the exhibition, Cameron implicated it and other non-profit organizations who regularly buy goods made by incarcerated people, citing themselves within the long tail of involuntary servitude.
If this small arts non-profit was implicated in a chain of relations already connected to the extensiveness of the carceral state, then surely The Museum of Modern Art was too. After seeing the exhibition with Cameron, I began speaking with my colleague, Kathy Halbreich, MoMA’s associate director. We talked about how we might leverage the museum to not only support the ambitions of Cameron’s project—in other words, the network of relations and the beauty of the entangled space their show had created—but to do so through the terms it proposed. For a museum whose cultural value is often measured through acquisition and its collection, this meant a reconsideration of the terms of a museum accession. Typically, when museums acquire a work of art, they’re gifted it by a trustee or donor or buy it directly from an artist or their gallery. While some of Cameron’s works were for sale, including the lashing bars used for insurance purposes on top of ships, many—including those produced by imprisoned people, like the manhole leveling rings, the things you see on the ground here [fig. 7]—were not sold, but rather rented for renewable five-year terms at their cost of original purchase, ensuring that the value deemed by the state is continually attached to the work after it extends into a different context.
Figure 7. Cameron Rowland, Leveler (Extension) Rings for Manhole Openings, 2016 Cast aluminum, pallet, distributed by Corcraft 118 × 127 × 11 inches (299.72 × 322.58 × 27.94 cm) Rental at cost Manhole leveler rings are cast by prisoners in Elmira Correctional Facility. When roads are repaved, they are used to adjust the height of manhole openings and maintain the smooth surface of the road. Work on public roads, which was central to the transition from convict leasing to the chain gang, continues within many prison labor programs. The road is a public asset, instrumental to commercial development. Courtesy the artist and Maxwell Graham/Essex Street, New York
During a meeting to raise funds for these rentals, Kathy responded to a question and inquired about the reasons behind their rental status, speculating that, “maybe Cameron doesn't want to be owned.” A third means of transfer was designated for Disgorgement, seen in the upper left, the Purpose Trust Cameron mentioned earlier that hold shares until federal reparations are paid. Over the course of a year, my colleagues and I, along with Cameron and a team of lawyers, negotiated an extended loan of the work, along with a freshly drafted and signed agreement. In approaching Cameron about an acquisition of a work that planned for reparations, we understood that this work, in particular, was explicitly contesting the terms of ownership. The task of acquisition was conceived as a place to intervene, where artistic and curatorial work might happen alongside one another. The invitation was premised on the idea that MoMA’s capacity for preserving this work, represented by the framed contract papers, was different from many other works. Normally the future of an artwork’s conservation is considered around the terms of its physical properties—fungible materials like baloney or dung—yet this artwork required a different method of considering its posterity and futurity. This wouldn’t take place within the conservation department but rather within the non-profit status of the museum.
CR: As you can tell, each of my works has this descriptive caption. I think of these captions as part of the material of the work. Here you see the caption for Disgorgement (2016) [fig. 8]. The materials of Disgorgement are Reparations Purpose Trust and Aetna Shares. It specifically uses Aetna shares because Aetna’s slave insurance policies were the basis for Deadria Farmer-Paellmann’s research when she was tracing the lineage of contemporary insurance companies to slave insurance practices. Aetna is one of the few companies that has stayed intact continuously and is one of the companies that was connected to her own family. Aetna was also forced to publish their slave insurance policies per the slavery era insurance disclosure laws that Farmer-Paellmann helped to pass in numerous states beginning in 2000, and Aetna then became one of the first defendants in the claim made by Farmer-Paellmann’s case. The Reparations Purpose Trust is a trust instrument that I outlined with curator Richard Birkett and executed with lawyers Ruth Mattson and Alexander Bove. MoMA has agreed to continue the Trust if Artists Space is no longer able to serve as the grantor. The work is intended to both set up the stated conditionality and to mark out the scale of accumulation over the time of deferral. The number of years may be a less useful way of measuring the time of deferred reparations, than the scale of corporate growth that results from it.
A typical trust works like a letter to send assets from one party to another over time. It is a key instrument of inheritance. The grantor is akin to the sender of the letter, the trust is the envelope, the assets are the contents, and the beneficiary is the recipient. The trustee ensures what is being sent arrives at the designated time. Most trusts need a stated beneficiary and point of divestiture but using Delaware Trust Code for purpose trusts, this Trust does not have either. Because the grantor is a nonprofit, it is able to grow tax-exempt. The complexity of implicating an art institution required a certain level of risk and burden on the institution's behalf, and this would not have been possible without Richard Birkett, Stefan Kalmár, and Artists Space as a whole organization. When Thomas started this conversation with MoMA, our goal was to imagine how MoMA might support the long-term viability of the work. We agreed not to have MoMA supplant Artists Space immediately, but rather agree to take its place in the event that Artists Space is unable to continue serving as the grantor. The stability of MoMA as a major institution was something we envisioned using to allow the Trust to continue to exist. This commitment takes the form of a side agreement, which is not currently included in what I call the component of the work intended for exhibition, yet is an integral part of the work. The work overall is not just the framed pieces of paper, but the assets of the company, and the relations that terms of the Trust incur. The final line of the caption has been added to signal the existence of this side agreement with MoMA as part of those relations.
Figure 8. Cameron Rowland, Disgorgement, 2016 Reparations Purpose Trust, Aetna Shares Aetna, amongst other insurance companies, issued slave insurance policies, which combined property and life insurance. These policies were taken out by slave masters on the lives of slaves, and provided partial payments for damage to the slave and full payment for the death of the slave. Death or damage inflicted by the master could not be claimed. The profits incurred by these policies are still intact within Aetna. In 1989 Congressman John Conyers of Michigan first introduced Congressional Bill H.R. 40, which would "Establish the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies." The bill would convene a research commission, that would, among other responsibilities, make a recommendation as to whether a formal apology for slavery is owed, whether reparations are owed, what form reparations would then take and who would receive them. Conyers has reintroduced the bill to every session of congress since then. This bill acquired 48 cosponsors in 1999-2000. Currently it has no cosponsors. In 2000 the state of California passed the bill SB 2199, which required all insurance companies conducting business in the state of California to publish documentation of slave insurance policies that they or their parent companies had issued previously. In 2002 a lawyer named Deadria Farmer-Paellmann filed the first corporate reparations class-action lawsuit seeking disgorgement from 17 contemporary financial institutions including Aetna, Inc., which had profited from slavery. Farmer-Paellmann pursued property law claims on the basis that these institutions had been enriched unjustly by slaves who were neither compensated nor agreed to be uncompensated. Farmer-Paellman called for these profits and gains to be disgorged from these institutions to descendants of slaves. The Reparations Purpose Trust forms a conditionality between the time of deferral and continued corporate growth. The general purpose of this trust is “to acquire and administer shares in Aetna, Inc. and to hold such shares until the effective date of any official action by any branch of the United States government to make financial reparations for slavery, including but not limited to the enactment and subsequent adoption of any recommendations pursuant to H.R. 40 – Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” As a purpose trust registered in the state of Delaware this trust can last indefinitely and has no named beneficiaries. The initial holdings of Reparations Purpose Trust consists of 90 Aetna shares. In the event that federal financial reparations are paid, the trust will terminate and its shares will be liquidated and granted to the federal agency charged with distributions as a corporate addendum to these payments. The grantor of the Reparations Purpose Trust is Artists Space, its trustee is Michael M. Gordon, and its enforcer is Cameron Rowland. The Reparations Purpose Trust gains tax-exemption from its grantor’s nonprofit status. Courtesy the artist and Maxwell Graham/Essex Street, New York
TJL: What Cameron is describing was a process of negotiation and ultimately an agreement between the Office of General Counsel and my colleague Patty Lipshutz and the painting and sculpture department led by Ann Temkin. These colleagues and I discussed how taking on a fiduciary responsibility would implicitly mean MoMA would take a political stance on the issue of reparations. Ultimately, this had to be acceptable both from a curatorial and administrative position. Part of this conversation was the recognition that all forms of acquisition carry with them the support of an artwork and its possible futures, as well as the ideological assumptions embedded within the category of property through which other paintings and sculptures typically enter into the museum’s collection. Setting up other terms of acquisition in which the institution is not the owner is not the norm, but in drawing relief and marking itself from the norm, this work draws attention to the assumptions around property that the institution makes regularly, and perhaps the continuity between property as a category and historical forms of dispossession that emanate from slavery and other forms of involuntary servitude.
CR: Part of my hope for the work is that it can both confront the expectation of an artwork to function as property and simultaneously reflect on the means of accumulation and inheritance that enable wealth to be retained and institutions like MoMA to exist. So, in advocating for the museum to come into relation with the work, Thomas is a collaborator in materializing and mobilizing those tensions without allowing MoMA to take ownership of them. I think this is part of what’s facilitated by the alignment in our thinking about our projects and our projects’ relationship to other people's projects, and all of the ways that they overlap and inform each other.
TJL: One thing that I love about this work of yours is how its supposed or potential failure also becomes a value. One example is that if the United States were to institute a single-payer health care system—something that when initially the word “work” was constructed and leant by you was differently possible then it has become—in that event, Aetna’s assets would have become worthless, and unable to distribute its funds, the Trust would have been dissolved. In this way, the eventuality of the work is itself deferred or displaced, so that reparations—and what it promises or stipulates, like emancipation or abolition—is not considered to be a one-time event, but rather, this work, like the other artworks you've talked about, engage a history of continuity as the mode through which these different forms of freedom might be achieved. Working within an institution and with you to imagine this future is not our attempt at resolution or a kind of arrival at reparations as a teleological endpoint, but rather a project that we are continuously contributing to, drawing on countervailing forces and finding what looks and might feel like stasis but is in fact everywhere in motion around us.
Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa: Thank you both for this thoughtful and expansive survey of ideas that are central to your collaboration and individual interests. My first question is tied to Disgorgement and the work that you were both just discussing. I also wanted to connect this to something that Cameron has said previously, which was how difficult it is for people to visualize all the various strategies and successes of refusal against the depredations of anti-blackness that have happened historically.
We can chart accumulation under racial capital through the forms and events of different institutions and geographies. That’s certainly an important aspect of the broader question but it’s very hard to see the countervailing forces that were simultaneously operative with them. I was thinking about this as you were describing Disgorgement and speaking about MoMA’s position in this work, because you outline the relation with MoMA as both helping to mark out the time of deferral to a governmental decision to agree to reparations, and marking out the scale of corporate growth that will occur in that ongoing interval, which we may assume as being open ended. To me, the work starts to make visible and to attach the institution of MoMA to the reality of an ongoing refusal on the part of institutional power to acknowledge its constitution in and through racial expropriation, while also attempting to refuse or reverse those conditions. Could you speak to this question of making practices of refusal, resistance, and evasion visible in your work, at the same time as making the forces of anti-black violence more palpable and visible for people.
CR: It is as complicated as you describe and it’s not even that it’s easy to envision or comprehend the scale of accumulation predicated on expropriation, but it’s easier to envision or comprehend accumulation as coinciding with linear constructions of time, than practices of refusal. As you just said, the growth of a stock is measured on this linear scale. And so, Disgorgement is partly saying “could we just have this one adjustment” as opposed to thinking about reparations as a completely unknowable number or unimaginable rearrangement. While we’re having this conversation, and since the Trust was created in 2016, it has nearly doubled in value. Even just having that as a reference has been helpful in trying to comprehend the scale of accumulation. But as I was saying earlier, what’s much more difficult is to try to imagine what that accumulation might look like without all the forms of refusal and resistance that have been imposed on it. We would be remiss in calling these “failed” because they are incursions and their incursion has all forms of consequence. I’m trying to hold these things together and maybe materialize—to different extents and in different ways—that reduction in value. I have been thinking about this in relation to Encumbrance but it’s also played out to a certain extent in Disgorgement because, as Thomas was saying, the dissolution of the Trust also dissolves MoMA’s claim to this piece of cultural production; there’s not really a “thing” there anymore once it’s no longer active.
SWW: I wanted to ask you, Thomas, about “precedent”—a term I use here to reference its implied legal connotations. Earlier, you were discussing how the decision on the part of MoMA to get engaged in Disgorgement bonded together fiduciary and political commitments that would deepen over time. I imagine that central to that discussion was a reckoning with the reality that their engagement with this artwork commits them to a politics that is expressly opposed to anti-blackness and supportive of reparation. It establishes a precedent in a way that might be actionable for those of us who consider ourselves to be members of the broader community the museum addresses, and that establishes a precedent and a measure to come back to for evaluating decisions that the institution makes—whether in the form of the composition of its board or in its activities around property and real estate, its programs, and hiring practices. I’m curious what you think about the precedent of MoMA’s relationship with Disgorgement in terms of a broader community’s relationship to the institution. What are the implications, not only for Cameron’s work but for MoMA’s position in the cultural landscape?
TJL: I’m thinking about your question in two directions. I heard your question first as the “precedents” for Cameron's work, which became a way of contemplating how works made prior to this work might be perceived after this work’s acquisition. We should also consider here histories of the readymade, conceptualism, and institutional critique as forms one might perceive as linear precedents to Cameron’s work, being distinguished from the kinds of objects of critique that are made precedent in this work. Just to be explicit, I'm thinking here of how, in the institutional critique of another generation, the museum is often taken as the localized site in which criticism happens. What is important about Cameron’s project is that the museum, like any other institution, is party to a network of relations. I think this work’s presence in MoMA’s collection invites us to think about the museum's relationship to other institutions of disciplinary control. There’s a generosity to that. Another kind of precedent is the history of objects made by other people living and working in conditions of involuntary servitude as being under the rubric of the “modern.”
Certainly, the timeframe of when MoMA’s collection began is imagined to be “post” emancipation in the United States, at least. But there’s a way in which the kind of modernity of our modern-isms of various practices made by enslaved people has a different kind of purchase or visibility in terms of telling histories of creative practice and artmaking under the rubric of the modern, and whatever ways we might imagine that to be happening towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. So, again, something that has not yet come to pass, but that feels like a precedent this work establishes for its precedents. In terms of the actual question you're asking around what is the precedent for other artists: one, it’s your naming of blackness and property acquisition as being coterminous, if not synonymous. In a moment where there’s an attempt to align oneself with black culture, it is to understand that the terms of that alignment have to deal with other types of relationship to categories of property related to ownership and real estate.
What that looks like is textured, and something, I, as one person inside of that place, moved with many others in that conversation. The reason I can say that is because I'm not the only person in there who is asking this. Many other colleagues are also processing this. I think the other take away is how we work with folks and how the museum enables or supports this work. You take a set of assumptions or a way of working, a process, a mode of composition, and you try to build a structure that mimics this so that other people can come into it. That logic, I think it is kind of black, but it doesn't necessarily only have to be to do with black people. I think it’s black because it understands architecture and space as the ways in which much of the work happens, which I think a lot of black folks do. But it’s something that is applicable and germane to everybody.
SWW: A question just came in, which I believe was in response to the use of the word “precedent.” It reads, “the question of ‘precedent’ is interesting in the context of authorship: does the artist support the possibility of this model of acquisition gaining a kind of ‘currency’ in the market as a way of resistance? Can one appropriate and propagate this model?”
CR: The model of the way in which the work resides within MoMA is not unusual: it’s an extended loan. The museum handles extended loans from artists as well as extended loans from collectors. In that way, like the use of the stability of the institution, Thomas and I were thinking about how to use an existing framework that the museum preserves, largely out of respect for patrons, where it allows work to exist within it without owning it, and to think about how that might relate to this work. That is something that is certainly available and has been used by many others. I think the legal role that MoMA has agreed to take on is somewhat particular to this work. But there are many ways that institutions can participate in artworks, and it would be interesting for that to be something that was more available. Part of what I want to convey is that the possibility for this—in our case—was largely created by Thomas and their willingness to pursue this, because, maybe in trying to be as concise as possible, we’ve glossed over the fact that this negotiation took more than a year and was not exactly easy.
TJL: I was going to refute this singularity because I have named some of my colleagues (including the museum’s director) who were collaborators in the mechanics of this and were invested in the vision of coming together. This project would not have come to pass had a set of collaborators not believed in what Cameron was trying to do.
SWW: Cameron, could you speak to the commitment in your practice to circulate the products of your work in and through mechanisms such as rental contracts, and how this undermines the capitalist paradigm of ownership. Do you think this process could be propagated more widely?
CR: The rental project has several implications for the status of an artwork. There's no secondary market for any of those works—I’m basically the sole determinant of how much they're transferred for. But that’s not really the core of the project; the core of the project is thinking about art as having this expectation of exchange and transactionality incumbent upon it and saying that this is a special type of commodity where, within the commodity form and within that set of exchanges, there is the possibility for something unusual, and maybe we can use that capacity for critique. So, rather than thinking, well, should we all rent artworks—I'm less interested in saying, for a number of different reasons, that renting out works is a solution to the problems of equitability in the art market—it’s perhaps more interesting to think about the transactional capacity or the expectation of the transactional capacity of an artwork to further the critique of property and racial capitalism.
SWW: We have a question from Sonia Louise Davis: “Speaking of visibility, I'm interested in the layered refusal of participation in the given terms of the art world and its consumption of blackness and the way in which Cameron’s praxis refuses a certain kind of ‘being seen-ness.’”
CR: We're at a moment where the currency of blackness has become more pronounced. I don't really make work about myself, so I don't really appear in it. But as Thomas and I have talked about, I'm not pretending to be objective either.
TJL: Thank you, Sonia, for a question that has so much gift inside of it. One of the ways in which I understand the body, embodiment, or figuration to occur in your work, Cameron, is the manifest sense of the objects having been touched in the way you install these sculptures, so that there is an absented but nevertheless reappearing sense of the folks who have either used, produced, or made—depending on the context—the objects one is looking at. The animation of the past in the work also conveys a return or an inevitability—a kind of haunting that imagines a moment of coming back. How the body or the figure appears is through these non-apparent forms.
SWW: I have a question that bridges two things: Thomas’s description of the Just Above Midtown show and Cameron’s tying of Encumbrance to the ICA in London. A word that’s lurking in the background of this question is something like decoloniality, but it’s also about the way that Just About Midtown and Encumbrance are, in very specific material and historical ways, tethered to the immediate geographies of the institutions in which they're active. We have a kind of readymade phrase in our history, which is site-specificity. But again, I’m thinking back to what Thomas said earlier about how Cameron’s work changes other works in different institutions. Cameron, I wonder whether you could speak about the particular place (in terms of geography and time) in which a work of yours is located. And Thomas, if you could speak in terms of your curatorial practice about the various histories and communities that are constitutive of the environment in which you're practicing. I feel that a term like site-specificity gets us nowhere close enough to understanding how that priority is inflected in both of your practices.
CR: I don’t think of the work as site-specific, because as Thomas indicated, it’s not really about the site, as far as the site defines the location of the project. For example, I showed Depreciation—which uses a piece of property in South Carolina—at an exhibition in Los Angeles and some people thought that was strange. That exhibition was also talking about legacies of displacement on the very site where the museum is located. Those two things are not unrelated in my mind. Similarly thinking about Encumbrance, it is simultaneously about that location while also about the empire and where this material came from. From my perspective, the ways in which I approach context are less oriented towards how the work might fit into it, and more focused on what the context offers that I could use. When I learned, for example, that the building that the ICA resides in is owned by the Crown Estate, I felt that was extremely useful as a material for exemplifying the legacies of coloniality and slavery, particularly because so many of the products of that economy have been consumed. So that was one possible way that I was thinking about using the institution; and then the question is: how do we use it?
TJL: In terms of JAM or Just Above Midtown: Linda Goode Bryant, in calling that gallery “Just Above Midtown,” offers so much available material and incisive criticism of this question of location in that it obviates all preconceptions of an inside and outside. By occupying the middle of gallery row on 57th Street and doing something distinct from other galleries on that street, Bryant located the gallery in but not of the commercial art world. I think geography in that equation is named as all the things that geography already is, which is status and proximity to certain forms of cultural capital. For Linda and I, and the rest of the team working on this project, the idea of decentralization or de-territorialization has been a way of thinking through how the exhibition lives in the galleries of The Museum of Modern Art, but also lives in many other places as well. Where there is a need for the culture that was produced and continues to be produced by the kind of artists within the stream of that gallery space, are those modes of distribution enabled or supported by MoMA? This is a different model from the typical outreach models that treat black shows with the expectation: “we now have X show on view, what a great occasion to bring in schoolchildren.” This is an opportunity to ask how the resources and apparatuses we have access to can be used to reimagine the museum’s purpose, building a new kind of infrastructure to meet those needs. I hear Linda saying this in terms of emphasizing the importance of location. The tension in blackness—between diaspora and movement and staying without a fixed home while also wanting to have a claim to a place at the same time, and the difficulty of holding those positions—is also about necessity.
SWW: Cameron, could you speak about your methods of acquiring objects that were produced by convicted people and deploying them in a practice that’s simultaneously arrayed in support of reparation? This connects to another question that’s come up about whether the ground level work of reparations is at risk in the moment we are living through—which Saidiya Hartman has perfectly described as the “afterlife of slavery.” What is the possibility that your artistic strategies of appropriation are susceptible to racial capitalism’s absorption of everything that was seemingly opposed to it?
CR: Should I start and then we can finish together, T? This is something I thought about for a long time—I was working on this project for over two years. It came about through trying to better understand the scale of the correctional industries programs in New York state, but also more widely, and trying to understand what they are for. Their primary role is not to simply maintain the carceral institution, but to provide savings for institutions of carcerality, judicial violence, government, public education, and private nonprofits. In this way, correctional industries materialize the contours of the carceral state. This was really important for me and is in some ways best exemplified by the leveler rings. These leveler rings are used any time any road is repaved in New York State, and so every time you walk out, you’re walking on that labor. Similarly, all public school and public university furniture in New York State is made by Corcraft; bus wash is made by Corcraft. In these examples, the purpose is not only to generate profits for the carceral institution but to offer a cut-rate price on these commodities to governmental and nonprofit organizations. Part of what I’m trying to articulate are these numerous benefits that nonprofit organizations receive and that move across the private university, the private hospital, and the private art institution—all of which are private nonprofit organizations. In the end, the materials themselves are omnipresent.
Constituting them as these works and arranging the registration of Artists Space with Corcraft was a way of intentionally outlining our dependencies as opposed to trying to continue ignoring them. The second question about the capacity of or for recuperation is a complicated question, and I think all of us doing critical work are trying to think about the ways that work might exist in the world impactfully or have some relationship to these processes that are the focus of the critique, without then providing value to the vehicles that make such critique accessible. It’s an extremely complex and nuanced conversation that’s occurred throughout art history and has also occurred in many different ways throughout the academy. I think that part of what we’re thinking about together are the ways in which a recuperated value is achieved through the rubric of individual achievement. If we don't focus on propriety when we think about these ways of working, if we’re learning from and teaching each other and are in this together, then we already have the thing that we’re talking about. There are ways of being together in that critique that aren’t about an institution validating it and creating value and property out of it as the means for its dissemination.
TJL: I completely agree with you. As a parting comment, I think that the risk of co-option and absorption are real and deep, and one thinks about it every day. But at the same time one has to not think about it too much—because one has work to do too—while also needing to have faith in the kind of ongoing uncapturability that exists alongside predation. I guess something that's perhaps more vibrant for me is less in what ways these practices or strategies might be absorbed and more in the ways we can take on practices never imagined to be ours and name them as such. I’m thinking of a book that Cameron sent me by the poet Lorna Goodison. When recently asked about her own relationship to writing within a British tradition, and how her revolution or refusal was of being co-opted in that tradition, Goodison told the story of an enslaved woman who went before the court for stealing sugar on a plantation in Jamaica and whose defense was, “Me no thief from master, me take.” That direction of “taking” is, in this moment, more of my concern than the ways in which, what we’re up to—for the reasons you named, Cameron—might be stolen by others.
Tina M. Campt, Listening to Images (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 9–10.
Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 2004), 51.
The authors wish to acknowledge and thank Eames Armstrong, Gabriella Beckhurst Feijoo, Tina Campt, Harry C. H. Choi, J. English Cook, Eli Coplan, Vivian A. Crockett, Ivana Dizdar, Atheel Elmalik, Amauta Marston-Firmino, Elizabeth Gollnick, Alessandra Gomez, Maxwell Graham, Eric Lee, Viv Liu, Tavia Nyong'o, Nicolas Ochart, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Will Rawls, Amanda Ryan, Gabriella Shypula, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, and Andros Zins-Browne.
© 2022 8th Triennial of Photography Hamburg 2022 and the authors