Hans Haacke, Gift Horse, 2014 (Photo: Ognjen Simic for Fine Art Globe)

In its final week of display, Hans Haacke’s ‘All Connected’ retrospective at the New Museum was hacked, dramatically skewing the results of Haacke’s interactive work “New Museum Visitors Poll” (2019). “New Museum Visitors Poll” is an interactive piece that asks viewers to answer survey questions on an iPad and displays their results in real-time on a nearby screen.

The poll asks museum guests a number of multiple-choice questions that aim to take a broad look at the demographics and political views of its audience, ranging from simple questions about the age and gender identity of each respondent to deeper probes such as “Should people fleeing repression, misery, and violence in foreign regions be given shelter in your country?”

Hackers changed poll results about wealth inequality

While the hackers, Brooklyn based artist Grayson Earle and a collaborator identified as “M,” randomized the results of most of the poll’s questions, they specifically targeted a question that asks:

“A global wealth report of 2013 by Credit Suisse, a major Swiss Bank, stated: ‘…the lower half of the global population collectively own less than 1% of global wealth, while the richest 10% of adults own 87% of all wealth, and the top 1% account for almost half of all assets in the world.’ What is your opinion on this?”

Hans Haacke, New Museum Visitors Poll (2019) now displaying the corrected result (Courtesy: New Museum).

The unadulterated survey showed that 85% of participants responded with the answer “Such inequality needs to be corrected,” but after Earle’s interference boosted the number of responses from 14,000 to 70,000, the response “accumulation of wealth should not be interfered with” jumped from 8 percent to 85. In  a statement to Hyperallergic, Earle and “M” claim that they were motivated by a desire to bring attention to the New Museum’s reaction toward its staff’s desires to unionize and “to mount further pressure on museums like the New Museum to recognize and redress their continuing complacency in capitalism.”

Hans Haacke, MoMA Poll (1970), an early example of Hans Haacke’s subversive work of institutional critique (Courtesy: MoMA)

The politically motivated stunt comes as an intriguing end cap to an exhibit by an artist who made his career at the forefront of institutional critique; one who oftentimes similarly questioned the establishment that he operated and existed in. In fact, polling and surveying art-goers has been a staple of Haacke’s work for decades now, and the recently hacked exhibit harkens back to Haacke’s previous work ‘MoMA Poll’ (1970), which asked viewers “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for you not to vote for him in November,” a question which becomes less innocent when considered alongside the museum’s clear ties to the Rockefeller family, who were major donors and on MoMA’s board of directors.

As Haacke’s body of work seeks to examine and critique the systems that have pervaded and dominated the art world and beyond, so too do the activists that hacked his exhibit seek to use it as a platform to question the institutions at play and the narratives they employ to gain the social capital that they need to survive. In this way, Earle’s actions seem to espouse the same message as the show he sought to disrupt. Earle claims he was questioning “the efficacy of sanctioned institutional critique,” a form of questioning that is not at all dissimilar to the kind of inquiry that saw Haacke ousted from the New York art world throughout his career.

It is worth examining the time and place in which Earle and M made their statement

The past year has seen a wave of activism that challenges the relationships between museum establishment and the principles that the institutions claim to embrace. And it it is worth examining the time and place in which Earle and M made their statement– in a context an artist whose work is intrinsically tied to the social and political contexts in which he is creating, who has said that “information presented at the right time and in the right place can potentially be very powerful.” 

Grayson Earle and M specifically targeted the New Museum’s recent unionization negotiations

While Earle and M cite protests against the New Museum’s Bronx Ideas Festival and Warren Kander’s resignation from his position as vice-chairman of the Whitney as motivations for their intrusion into Haacke’s retrospective, they specifically target the New Museum’s recent unionization negotiations as the purpose of their activism, claiming that the altered responses “better expresses the political position of American museums like the New Museum.” Earle and M believe that the New Museum should “have agreed to meet workers at the bargaining table, committed to reducing the income disparity between executive and low-level staff, and ensured their annual budgeting fell in line with the sorts of progressive values they are trading off.”

The pair is referencing the recent negotiations between New Museum employees and management regarding wages and benefits paid to the lowest-earning members of the museum’s staff. While the talks were described by union members as “hostile,” in October the New Museum did agree to a new contract that improved employee safety measures, increased wages, and provided guaranteed health care for staff. Although the move came under threat of employee strikes and can be seen as an institution caving to public pressure and providing the bare minimum of wage equality adjustments, it is nevertheless still curious that Earle and M chose to make a statement focused on an issue that was seemingly resolved months ago in the favor of the New Museum’s workers.

In many ways, Grayson Earle and M seem to be attempting to imitate the work of Haacke even as they disrupt it.

What is more curious, however, is not the time in which Earle and M decided to present their information, but the place in which they choose to do so. In many ways, the pair seem to be attempting to imitate the work of Haacke even as they disrupt and reconstruct it. By randomizing the answers to survey questions, they distort the reality of the results and thereby neutralize any meaning that Haacke asked his audiences to engage with. Haacke is an artist who has spent his life as an activist bringing to light the elitism of museum institutions, their patrons, and the members that make up their administration. As a matter of fact, his various polling exhibitions have long served to highlight the homogenous nature of the general museum and gallery-going public, and by robbing Haacke’s poll of its authenticity, the pair have inherently robbed it of the context that is essential to the questions and answers that the work poses.

While Earle and M believe that “consent here is implied by both Haacke and by extension the museum itself,” and consider Haacke “a source of inspiration to us both,” Haacke himself has seemingly long struggled with similar questions of compromise between the values he holds and the shortcomings of the institutions which display his work. In a 1984 interview with October Magazine, Haacke comments on this form of compromise, stating:

“Corporations and the wealthy attach themselves to art institutions to give them a veneer of progressivism; that means that the same forces that make institutions prone to neutralizing critical art also make them open to promoting critical art; that’s a contradiction you have to navigate…let’s not forget that we are not living in an ideal society. One has to make adjustments to the world as it is. In order to reach a public, in order to insert one’s ideas into the public discourse, one has to enter the institutions where this discourse takes place.”

By entering art institution spaces uninvited, Earle and M get around the problem of complicity with the perceived hypocrisy of the industry. 

While Earle and M certainly agree with Haacke’s thoughts on the “veneer of progressivism” that art institutions like the New Museum adopt, their actions seem to reject Haacke’s call to navigate the contradictions at play in these systems, instead choosing to commandeer the spaces of public discourse without entering them on the institution’s terms. By entering these spaces outside of traditional means and without invitation, they get around the unsavory problem of having to participate in, and therefore be complicit with, the perceived hypocrisy of the industry surrounding artistic discourse. It’s a workaround that one cannot help but wonder how Haacke responded to balancing the disruption and destruction of his work with a form of activism that he may be sympathetic to as a long-time outsider from the mainstream institutional powers that be. 

Regardless of Haacke’s thoughts on the pair’s intrusion into his long-awaited retrospective, one thing is for certain: the forms of rebellion and critique that he pioneered have opened the door for people like Earle and M to express politically and socially motivated works of art, giving new modalities for artists to question the systems in which they operate in or attempt to subvert.