Gregory Sholette: Delirium and Resistance, Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism

The author of "Dark Matter Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture" Gregory Sholette, joins us in Athens for a discussion of his new book "Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism", and a talk on his concept of cultural resistance in a "bare art world", in the context of TO THE FUTURE PUBLIC series of actions, talks and workshops.

Poster-action at the Athens School of Fine Art  for Gregory Sholette's talk for To The Future Public. Image: James Simbouras

Poster-action at the Athens School of Fine Art  for Gregory Sholette's talk for To The Future Public. Image: James Simbouras

The event took place at the Free Self-Organized Theater EMPROS, Riga Palamidi 2, Psirri, Athens, on June 8 2017.

Followed by panel talk with Gregory Sholette, Iliana Fokianaki (curator, Extra City Kunsthal Antwerp / director, State of Concept), James Simbouras (curator, C.A.S.A.).



In the aftermath of the 2016 US election, Brexit, and a global upsurge of nationalist populism, it is evident that the delirium and the crisis of neoliberal capitalism is now the delirium and crisis of liberal democracy and its culture. And though capitalist crisis does not begin within art, art can reflect and amplify its effects to positive and negative ends.

In this follow-up to his influential 2010 book, "Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture", Sholette engages in critical dialogue with artists’ collectives, counter-institutions, and activist groups to offer an insightful firsthand account of the relationship between politics and art in neoliberal society. Sholette lays out clear examples of art’s deep involvement in capitalism: the dizzying prices achieved by artists who pander to the financial elite, the proliferation of museums that contribute to global competition between cities in order to attract capital, and the strange relationship between art and rampant gentrification that restructures the urban landscape.

With a preface by noted author Lucy R. Lippard and an introduction by theorist Kim Charnley, Delirium and Resistance draws on over thirty years of critical debates and practices both in and beyond the art world to historicize and advocate for the art activist tradition that radically—and, at times, deliriously—entangles the visual arts with political struggles.

TO THE FUTURE PUBLIC in collaboration with:

Void Network: 

Avtonomi Akadimia:
Free Self-Organized Theater EMPROS:


In his wide-ranging art, activist, teaching and writing practice, Gregory Sholette has developed a self-described “viable, democratic, counter-narrative that, bit-by-bit, gains descriptive power within the larger public discourse.” Sholette is a founding member of Political Art Documentation/Distribution, which issued publications on politically engaged art in the 1980s; of REPOhistory, which repossessed suppressed histories in New York in the 1990s; and more recently, of Gulf Labor, a group of artists advocating for migrant workers constructing museums in Abu Dhabi. In dozens of essays, three edited volumes, and his own books including "Delirium & Resistance: Art Activism & the Crisis of Capitalism (2017)" and "Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture (2011, both Pluto Press)", and "It's The Political Economy, Stupid" with Oliver Ressler on view at the Contemporary Art Center, Thessaloniki, Greece in 2010. Sholette documents and reflects upon decades of activist art that, for its ephemerality, politics, and market resistance, might otherwise remain invisible. A co-director of Social Practice Queens at Queens College CUNY, he holds a PhD from the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, is a graduate of The Cooper Union, the University of California San Diego, and The Whitney Independent Study Program in Critical Theory. 


“Sholette is representative of a new artist type that emerged after Conceptualism in that his work as a critic, theorist, and curator is central to his practice as an artist. No-one else has come up with a category that rivals ‘dark matter’ as a hermeneutic for analysing the current political economy of art and the economic situation of artists, in all their variety. No-one else has quite the long-term commitment to collective practice or the record of publications on the theme. He is one of the most cogent artist-theorists currently working in the domain of social practice art.”

 – Andrew Hemingway, University College London

“Shifting between artistic practice, curating, writing, and activism, Sholette has been surfing the waves of activist art for more than three decades. His work is based on the multitude of lines drawn from the political art of the 20th century and expanding its realm as it reaches out to the transversal activisms of the 21st century. Delirium and Resistance is a manifesto documenting these developments in their broadest forms, from 1980s anti-gentrification efforts and 1990s tactical media practitioners, to the post-occupy-practices of our current circumstances.”

 – Gerald Raunig, author of DIVIDUUM: Machinic Capitalism and Molecular Revolution.

Free Self-Organised Theater EMPROS


Free Self-Organised Theater EMPROS,  at Kerameikos area in Athens, where Gregory Sholette's talk and presentation of his book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism took place on July 8 2017, in the context of To The Future Public program in Athens, is an occupied space with artistic, social and political function operating horizontally. 

"The Open Assembly is on Mondays, where joint decisions are made concerning the self- organizing and self-management issues of space planning, thematic, and updates. We counter any form of hierarchy, discrimination and verticalities. With self-determination and self-commitment of all those present in the Open Assembly for active participation in the operation, with mutual respect and awareness, this is possible.

In the supposed interest of HRADF for the promotion of the historical value of the building - through its sell-off and privatization - we responded to since 2011, first with the Mavilis Movement, the Movement of Residents Psyrri etc. and then, by opening EMPROS as a self-managed space to host activities that promote artistic creation and experimentation, together with socio-intervention within a anti-hierarchic and anti-commercial structure.

We try to combine theory with practice, the artistic, the social and political, in matters relating to all, so as to redefine the role of art today, in conditions of emergency.

ACTIONS:  EMPROS is open to a wide range of activities, such as research projects, performance, theater, music, dance, visual arts, installations, architecture, photography, video art, workshops, discussions, poetry readings, film screenings, book presentations, meetings / group meetings, solidarity actions, celebrations, parties, courses, collective kitchen, actions in the area, the neighborhood, the street, etc."


Gregory Sholette: interview with Kaboom

M. Katritsis, Y. Ktenas, D. Haliasos



Q: How do you define the term "Delirium", which holds a central place in your most recent book?

GS: Thank you for these questions M. Katritsis, Y. Ktenas, D. Haliasos. First off, my primary reference regarding the use of the word delirium in the title and chapters of the new book is to the following pithy citation written just after the 2008 financial meltdown by the late, brilliant British theorist Mark Fisher:

“To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)

Or as the theorist Kim Charnley who edited my new book adds in his introduction:

“The art system, bloated by finance capital, has become delirious and cynically disenchanted. Art has been insulated against the crisis tendencies of neoliberal capitalism but also restructured to serve the interests of finance capital. After 2008, the art market showed itself to be immune to financial collapse, not least because it became a useful place to hedge investments, using the money pumped into the system by “quantative easing.”


Poster-action at the Athens School of Fine Art  for Gregory Sholette's talk for To The Future Public. Image: James Simbouras

Poster-action at the Athens School of Fine Art  for Gregory Sholette's talk for To The Future Public. Image: James Simbouras

Please be aware however, that I place the word delirium in close proximity to the word resistance in the book title in order to highlight both the connectivity and tension between these two terms. Much has happened since 2008, including as you know all too well the austerity measures and debt spiral that one could only describe as delirious. Most recently, following Brexit and the 2016 US, we also witness a feverish global upsurge of nationalist populism and xenophobia. Now the delirium and the crisis of neoliberal capitalism has spread into the realm of liberal democracy. And this condition has also begun to infect the world of art and culture. While capitalist crisis does not begin within art, art reflects and amplifies its effects. As I and Kim Charnley also insist: this combination of deliria, crisis and resistance generate not only negative, but a few positive outcomes, some of which are explored in the book, which I note is primarily focused on the situation in New York City over the past four decades because this is the place and the politics I know best. If these conditions of delirium and resistance, of gentrification and hyper-gentrification, and of what I call “Bare Art” and the “Dark Matter” of the art world also relate to conditions here in Greece than this is all for the better. You will need to decide that possible end result yourselves however.

Q: Your approach to art refers not only to artists and works of art, but also to the social institutions through which the art is presented, such as museums and galleries. Do you mind telling us some things about the way capitalism affects these institutions? Furthermore, do you think it is acceptable for an activist artist to use the tools that capitalistic or politically hostile institutions can provide in order to achieve that his radical artistic message will be reaching and perhaps affecting more people?

GS: A great set of questions, but first I think it is important to note that in the US context most major art institutions are not supported primarily by the state but by private interests including foundations, wealthy donors, and of course business corporations. The smallest portion of income for a place like the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim comes from federal or municipal money or tax breaks for their collections. So this highly privatized high art world cannot be separated from the apparatus of capitalism to the degree you might be able to do it here in Greece or other parts of Europe. Though I suspect this is changing as well because as the fiscal crisis continues to fester there will be increasing pressure on privatizing culture, which in the US and UK began with “public/private” partnerships during the introduction of deregulated neoliberal policies in the 1980s.


This means that in reference to your second question about activists using or leveraging the cultural and financial capital of such major art institutions it is for us in the United States at least, a lived reality that is all but impossible to completely avoid. Asymmetry of power is also part of that reality when we engage the mainstream art world as a type of dark matter or archival surplus operating with what James C. Scott describes as the “weapons of the weak.” That does not mean we are helpless. On the contrary, activists can easily project a very large shadow onto the institution by knowing how, when and where to engage. Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), Occupy Museums, Decolonize this Place, Liberate Tate, all of these recent agents of direct cultural protest intervention operating within mainstream art establishment institutions have been highly effective getting their message across using spectacular tactics that the art world and general news media gobbles up. But there is more to this activism, because their actual, real-time interruptions of the business-as-usual art world generates a condition for those present –both activists and bystanders alike– a significant liberatory moment, however fleeting, that is nonetheless like a kind of action-object, which immediately speaks to a widespread desire to realize not only another art world, but also another world in which our lives and our future are not subsumed by capital or by state institutions. (This is also why in the ultra-deregulated economy of the US we find artists generating ersatz institutions or what I call “mockstitutions” that imitate the function of a now almost completely decayed social institutional realm, but as artificial works of art that, ironically, often function better than the institutions they are seeking to mockingly imitate! For more on this please see from my last book Dark Matter.



Q: In this context, what could we think of the street art? Is it a way to challenge the instituted boundaries between the public and the private sphere? (In the sense that the private work of art is exposed to the public view, perhaps even through the use of private property – a painted wall, for example.

GS: I think you might be able to extrapolate from the comments I made above about activist and interventionist art to the question of street art, but with this important caveat: work made in and for the street is only as good –politically speaking– as the street is itself as a space of action and critical reflection in the first place. Because art cannot by itself transform delirium into resistance, not without the nearby proximity of collective political praxis and social organizing.



Q: How can a radical artist protect his art from becoming superficial and void of meaning in his attempt to deliver a political message? We have seen that many artists have visited and are staying in Athens during this time of political and economic crisis, wanting to “capture the moment” and find inspiration. Can it degrade into a type of safari to see the wildlife or can it offer true and sincere art from an indeed needed exterior and different point of view? Jacques Ranciere, in his recent visit to Athens, highlighted the turn of contemporary artists towards tribalism, anthropology, rituals etc. How would you comment this movement? Is it perhaps an effort to re-instill some "meaning" in a disenchanted world?

GS: One task of social movements might be to educate artists as well as curators and other art world professionals about the actuality of conditions “on the ground” so to speak. This will never in itself eradicate the tendency towards superficiality or the production of a “zoo” in which strange species are put on display. We know the history of art and of cultural spectacle is built on precisely these acts of seeing, or as my friend the theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, who has the “right to look.” Clearly this is ultimately about the anthropological spectator: the one who has the political power to detach himself (usually male) from life in order to reflect on it from a space of dispassionate reason. I think we know the whole narrative about this type of aesthetic detachment by now. However, just as with all of the activists I discuss above and in the book, leveraging the position of weakness is not impossible, even if limited perhaps and tactical. That is why having a strategy to place these interventions and “inversions” of this gaze within as a political praxis is very important.

For me, therefore, the re-enchantment of a lost world does not begin, or does not remain with individual artistic actions or small tribal gatherings and practices no matter how imaginative or clever, but it appears with demands for another art world, one that is a non-elitist and democratic that emerges from within what I call the shadow or surplus archive of a vibrant dark matter imaginary. Any possibility of a future public must recognize the relevance of this vital non-presence to present cultural and political circumstances as well as to that horizon of hope, which has yet to come.

Thank you so much for your time!

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