“The labor movement is not a cultural movement”: Dana Kopel interviews Fred Lonidier 

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Storied photographer Fred Lonidier discusses the origin of his practice in an antiwar action in early 1970s San Diego and his thoughts about where similar, politically engaged art is today in 2024. 

Dana Kopel: How did your interest in labor organizing come about?

Fred Lonidier: Well, it really came out of the anti-war movement, because the anti-war movement was beginning to coalesce into different views and factions and what-not. . . . [During graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, in the early 1970s,] the issue of documentary was a magnet for us and we were all trying to work out how to transcend liberal documentary and photojournalism. Everybody else in sociology was trying to transcend liberal sociology, liberal literature, and we were at a school where there was [Herbert] Marcuse and [Fredric] Jameson. . . . So this is—the war’s going on! It’s just full blast. There’s an anti-war movement on campus, there’s an anti-war movement in town. I’m photographing those things. 

I slipped through the line, went around behind this cop, and started to take my own pictures.”

DK: Were you involved with them as well?

FL: Well, I’m going to them. I’m not really part of the organizing or anything but I show up. That’s when I did 29 Arrests (1972). Somebody told me, “Oh by the way, there’s a thing going on down by the Naval District.” So I hopped in my car (because I could own a car by then), went down there and discovered that there’s this whole bunch of people, and there’s two things that you could see: one is demonstrators on a sidewalk going in a circle—because that’s what they made you do, you had to keep moving—and then there’s a whole lot of cops. Then they said, “Well, over those helmets, there’s a whole bunch of people lying and sitting down.” That’s a sit-in. If you wanna be arrested, you go there. If you don’t wanna be arrested, you stay on the sidewalk. I couldn’t even see them. I mean, there were so many cops. So we’re going around and around like this, and then this bus pulls up. And they start putting people on the bus one by one. There’s a line. Then I noticed that there’s this cop taking a polaroid of each one before he got on the bus. So I think, “Dare I do this?” [laughs]

DK: And you did?

FL: I did! I slipped through the line, went around behind this cop, and started to take my own pictures. Nobody bothered me, and in fact, there was a student radio kid, I think from San Diego State, who was there with a microphone, interviewing them!

DK: The people being arrested?

FL: Yeah.

DK: Wow.

FL: So that was okay. As long as that was going on, [my taking photos] was okay. And I bulk-loaded the film and there were only twenty-nine frames. So, the end of twenty-nine, that’s the end of my shots. Then I wandered back out to the picket line and went home, proofed them, and that was in my MFA show. 

DK: It sounds like the relationship between cops and the people documenting what they’re doing has changed so much in the past few decades. 

“The constructivists were anti-art, you know. They had a manifesto denouncing it every which way. Well, they were [also] busy making it.”

FL: Well, the San Diego police had a very bad record for shooting people. Bad record. But they weren’t anything like the LA cops. The LA cops attacked demonstrators. And they never did anything like that here. And the organizers of all of these things—this whole thing that was going on was all prearranged. So it was like, “Take a ticket.” Civil disobedience.

DK: You know what you’re getting into. How do you evaluate the success or effectiveness of your own work?

FL: Well, there’s no way to do it because there isn’t a movement. See, that’s what’s missing. The labor movement is not a cultural movement in the same way as a cultural movement that would be. You know, there have been times when the US labor movement and [those] of other countries were very heavily involved in cultural activities themselves. And before the whole era of collective bargaining, unions came out of burial benefits societies and then they would set up a chorus, and then they would do this—a library! And then they would do this, and then they would do a lot of that stuff, and then they would go on strike!

And the thing is that even if the Conceptual art movement is the last modernist movement—or postmodernism is, depending on how you view postmodernism—I happen to think postmodernism is just another anti-art art movement, of which there’s a history. What do they think Dada was?! You know? [laughing] I mean the constructivists were anti-art, you know. They had a manifesto denouncing it every which way. Well, they were busy making it. So there is this antipathy that cultural workers seem to have always had when they are of separate skill or craft or whatever. And there’s a whole history in art of the tensions between the painters and sculptors and all of these people who did all this work and the patronage system of the church and the nobility and the wealthy and this and that—all the tensions there were and how they usually had to hold back because if they pushed too hard . . . and the fact that so many artists produced work they never were paid for. I mean, you don’t stay rich by giving your money away.

So there’s not a cultural movement. . . . The fact is that most people who make art are not even in the art world. 

Left Art Review: What can artists, critics, theorists etc can learn from what art once did for unions, social movements, and other left organizing efforts? 

FL: The labor movement has, with few local exceptions, not been turning to the arts for use.  There are graphics, of course, and video.  Only with great effort, was I able to get my work in to union halls, etc.  Even the music festivals were not really places for wall exhibitions and shipping and insurance were a barrier.  Collectives might do better but even socially inclined artists are often not really joiners.  Years ago, there was Group Material.  Not once, when my work got show in a union space, did any other organization decide to show it.

“The fact is that most people who make art are not even in the art world.”

LAR: Can those contributions be redirected and retooled to address the needs of contemporary labor and left organizers in and outside the US?

FL: The problem in the U.S. is we don’t have social democracy.  Canada, for example, has much higher art government support for the arts and some I have know there have almost made a living with this and union funds.

LAR: ‘Marxism is the deepest closet of all,’ I recall you once wryly quipped and we wonder what your perspective on this comment is like today, does it still hold up, perhaps more so even than before?

FL: Marxism, however one defines it, has much shallower roots here than in much of the rest of the world…Maybe age has taken a lot of the edge off my drive for labor as an audience including my ability to get out there and make more.

Fred Lonidier was born in Oregon in 1943 and lives and works in San Diego. He served as a faculty member at UCSD from 1972 to 2013. His work is included in An Incomplete History of Protest an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Lonidier was also in the Whitney Biennial in 2014 and had a solo exhibition at the museum in 1977. His work has also been exhibited at the Reina Sofia, Madrid; United Nations Headquarters, Geneva; Istituto Svizzero di Roma; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Albright Knox Gallery, Buffalo; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Centre de la Photographie de Genève; Bronx Museum; Smart Museum of Art, Chicago; Palais de Tokyo, Paris; Berkeley Art Museum; Long Beach Museum of Art; MOCA, Los Angeles; FRAC Poitou-Charantes; High Museum, Atlanta; New Museum, New York and many other venues