Wael Shawky's "Cabaret Crusades" and Zero Tolerance at MoMA PS1

As the architecture of the former public school might portend (consciously or not), MoMA PS1 offers a unique space for the exhibition of contemporary art with a particular flair for the didactic. This may certainly be said of two of the current exhibitions on view: Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades and Klaus Biesenbach’s curatorial show Zero Tolerance. Viewed in tandem, the pair of exhibitions provides a dialogue of viewing that contemplates a broad spectrum of histories and media, together conveying narratives of power and violence that are all too relevant to contemporaneous society.

What is interesting about the Zero Tolerance show that outwardly appeared defiant and courageous in its confrontation of controversial protesting against superficially productive state interventions was its deliberate evasion of works directly referring to what might be the hottest topic in New York City: the NYPD’s (and other national police departments’) brutality cases — a phenomenon quite obviously relevant to the general theme of the entire exhibition. Despite the vast majority of works in the show that tackled international protest events — both past and current — Biesenbach would appear to make a direct reference to the site of the exhibition being a characteristically New York City show through the careful titling, deliberately referencing recent history with the “zero tolerance” policing strategies enacted in the 1990’s that are predominantly cited as the origin of the recent brutality cases.

However, none of the literature surrounding the exhibition mentions the police controversies, and Biesenbach publicly shies from direct reference: “I felt it was very important to not be finger pointing but to start with the here and now and look at New York City,” he claims, regarding his choice for the exhibition title. “The choice for Zero Tolerance was not inspired by the city’s recent mayoral elections, but I did remember the times of zero-tolerance policies in the city and how it was ‘cleaning it up.’”

In the viewer experience, after theoretically having digested the images of protest and urban activism dominant in the Zero Tolerance exhibition, the viewer might see Shawky’s works as a more removed, aetheticized, and poeticized détournement against the notion of political control. One might read the mere act of recounting the tale of The Crusades from an Arab perspective in such a theatrical context to be an act of protest within itself — that is, sedition against Western narrations of history. One might further read the theatrical productions of The Crusades, which emphasize the secular motives of the Christian crusaders, to be a painfully poignant parallel to ISIS terrorism, similarly employing religious fervor as a mechanism for domination. The transparency of the puppetry in these productions — made even more apparent by the deliberate inclusion of the original puppets within the exhibition — underscores the transparency of complete control within such situations of conflict and aggression.

Read together, the two exhibitions inform each other on notions of historicism and social responsibility, thus bearing more poetic weight. Whether Biesenbach did fully intend Zero Tolerance to be an illustration of police brutality as a danger to democracy or not, perhaps the subversion of the topic through the air of neutrality was a political move meant to avoid pure didactics within the educational institution. (Nonprofit spaces such as Smack Mellon may have more freedom assuming moral implications in their exhibitions, directly tackling the issue of police violence in their most recent exhibition, Respond.) But perhaps, like Shawky’s show upstairs, the plea for the active viewer to deduce the contemporaneous implications of the work on view fosters an even more critical learning space that characterizes the institution of MoMA PS1 as a whole.