Union Made: Fred Lonidier’s Whitney Biennial Teach-In



In a rousing display of conviction, The New York City Labor Chorus took to the stage at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art last Friday, singing a number of labor anthems for museum-goers. Their five-song performance included such union classics as Ralph Chaplin’s “Solidarity Forever” (1915) and Joe Hill’s “There Is Power in a Union” (1913), as well as more recent songs penned by Chorus members. The peculiarity of the Labor Chorus’s interjection into the museum setting was not lost on its members. After their performance, one elderly member said to a friend, “The last time I was at this museum, I was in high school. And they made me go!”

The Chorus was invited to the museum by Fred Lonidier, the Oregon-born, San Diego-based artist and activist, to open a “teach-in.” Part of his inclusion in the 2014 Biennial (through May 25), the event functioned as both an artist talk and an information session on current labor issues. For Lonidier, whose work’s mission is to document and bring visibility to global labor struggles, these tasks are coextensive, and the Chorus’s presentation was one effective, charming means to those ends. In all, through their earnestness and political rigor, the event’s proceedings called into question the seriousness of much self-proclaimed “activist” art practice today, and presented a compelling alternative.

“There’s a reason that churches have choruses, and there’s a reason that unions and choruses go so well together,” New York art dealer Maxwell Graham, proprietor of Lower East Side gallery Essex Street, told A.i.A. Essex Street represents Lonidier, and last month held an exhibition of The Health and Safety Game (1976/1978), perhaps the artist’s most acclaimed work. The project, which the Whitney exhibited in 1977, consists of an array of photo-and-text panels in which Lonidier documents laborers’ workplace injuries and their aftereffects.

Commemorating the artist’s concurrent endeavors in the medium of video was a four-television viewing station displaying Lonidier’s work, such as Labor Link TV, a public access program established in 1988 documenting labor meetings and actions, along with archival materials.

A card-carrying union member himself (American Federation of Teachers Local 2034, University of California San Diego), Lonidier, 72, spoke about his documentary work’s sense of responsibility toward its subjects.

“When you think of documentary, you think of someone going somewhere and taking pictures of people who are not them,” Lonidier told his audience. “They’re not making it for their subjects—they’re making their documentary for another audience. . . . I am interested in making work about my subjects, for my subjects.”

In keeping with this devotion, the Chorus, wearing matching red polo shirts and a colorful variety of union caps, filled all three rows of reserved seating-a space more commonly reserved for wealthy donors. The class disparity between the Chorus and the Whitney’s generally white-collar public was palpable, but the tension felt more instructive than antagonistic.

Lonidier’s talk was a recap of his career and, true to his ethos, it was addressed to his working-class comrades. He was accordingly straight-talking, unbeholden to art-world affectations. The result was an enthusiastic (if at times meandering) survey of his activism. While those who would have liked to hear the artist dissect his art’s intricacies were left wanting, the complexity of the work itself speaks volumes.

Lonidier focused on recent projects, gathered under the title N.A.F.T.A . . . (Not a Fair Trade for All) (. . . ), 1997-present, which illuminate and intervene into the maquiladoras of Tijuana: manufacturing plants in free-trade zones where global corporations send industrial materials to be processed into consumer goods, duty- and tariff-free—often to the detriment of their laborers’ quality of life. Photographs from these endeavors are on view on the Whitney’s third floor (the section curated by Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), along with GAF Snapshirts (1976), a group of design-your-own T-shirts emblazoned with texts and photographs incriminating GAF—the same New Jersey-based manufacturing corporation that Lonidier hired to print the shirts.

During his talk, Lonidier also announced that he will partner with Essex Street for another show later this year continuing the N.A.F.T.A. project.

“I can say with confidence that the Whitney Museum has never held an event quite like this,” Lonidier told A.i.A. “The museum has a whole community outreach department, reaching out to children, the elderly, racial minorities. . . . But class remains a blind spot.” Notably, the teach-in was held during the museum’s Friday night pay-what-you-wish hours, and paid tickets were not required, in contrast to many other Biennial events.

“We’re here in one of the great citadels of capitalism, this museum,” Lonidier continued. “And the only union employees here are the art handlers. Tonight we’ve cleared an opening where we can explore these problems, but we have to ask: how far can that opening go? How can we push forward, and fight for social justice?

“One thing’s clear,” he said. “We need to revitalize the project of the left, and seize the notion of a lifetime of struggle.”

Members of The New York City Labor Chorus told A.i.A. that they are seeking new members—preferably younger ones. Information on their weekly meetings, and how to join, is available on their website.