The Sadean Horror of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex: Artist and Filmmaker Charles de Agustin on Mission Drift

Mar 7, 2024

Mission Drift

The precarious and conflicted economics of non-profits — both material and libidinal — are the subject of artist and filmmaker Charles de Agustin‘s short narrative essay film Mission Drift, which, over the past year, has screened at festivals, art spaces and microcinemas in conjunction with panel discussions that are integral to the piece itself. (Writes D’Augustin on his website, “The medium of Mission Drift is described as ‘video and discussion:’ the work may only be publicly presented if it is followed by a robust audience discussion on the issues at hand, structured in consultation with the artist if he is not already present.”) The story involves a non-profit gallery worker’s encounter with a wealthy sadomasochistic patron. “I am trying to help you develop your new strategic plan,” the patron says to the gallery worker, who is bound to a chair in the middle of a cavernous white-walled space. As the scenario becomes increasingly surreal, the worker responds with a mini-lecture about the history of non-profit arts funding in America, from New Deal programs through the creation of the N.E.A. to the privatization of support during neoliberalism and how this structural change has affected both artists’s work as well as the everyday practice of arts non-profits themselves.
De Agustin’s incisive historical critique is conveyed here with a palpable feeling of mounting dread that’s remarkable given Mission Drift‘s inherent minimalism: it consists entirely of text on screen, narrated by the director, with open captions and a steadily building THX Deep Note — the authoritarian chord first heard before screenings of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi and considered — by its creators, at least — as “one of the most recognizable sonic identities in the world.”
In the last several months, Mission Drift has screened at the Maysles Documentary Center, Millennium Film Workshop, cinemóvil, the Gene Siskel Film Center and on Montez Press Radio. On March 27 it will receive its formal festival premiere at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, with de Agustin in attendance. Following that screening de Agustin says he’ll shift focus to a new work, which we discuss below, that will have a similar distribution method “but with a heightened sense of the politics of each host’s institutional context: there will be certain requirements for each presentation, making the artwork’s medium technically ‘film and contract.’” The following conversation took place in early January.
Filmmaker: I’ve worked in non-profits all my life, and in one, I worked with an artist who’d have this joke about being stuck in a “non-profit prison.”
de Agustin: That’s a great way to think about it. I think there’s a reason why the term “nonprofit industrial complex” came out of the prison industrial complex. The foundational Dylan Rodriguez text [“The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex”] summed that up in 2007. From the outside it feels like kind of a ridiculous line to draw, but it is a really useful way to think about it.
Filmmaker: What’s your background with non-profit spaces, and what were some of your experiences that led to wanting to make this piece?
de Agustin: I’m employed by a nonprofit arts organization, and I’m pretty happy there. I’m lucky that they treat me very well. But it became clear to me very quickly that I’m in an extreme minority situation in terms of work-life balance, having a comfortable salary, and being able to save money in New York. And so it was more this environment of sitting in an art gallery during public hours and not really having many other people there — just being kind of alone with white walls. And also speaking to friends. First and foremost there was this embodied feeling that something’s off. A few years prior I had been doing lived experience into the limitations of diversity equity work within neoliberal institutions and how that relates to revolutionary thought. The book Elite Capture by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò became really central to my research. So it was basically the intersection of those ideas with my environment of being in arts organizations.

The status quo of arts organizations now is that there’s so much emphasis on work that does things, to put it simply. In the piece in the film, that’s mostly talked about in the context of social practice. I’m interested in social practice as this kind of an artistic discipline that represents the very depressing gutting of any form of state support for creative livelihoods in this country. You can put different timestamps on it, but I think after Reagan and then coming into the ‘90s, and not just in the arts, non-profits in general literally became huge subcontractors of what should be government services. They came into their own as organizations that we depend on hugely to carry out basic societal functions. These critiques of nonprofits have been around for decades by now — I’m not saying anything new. But I think what is new is how much we’ve just acknowledged it as an unfortunate situation — like, “This is what we have to work with.”
I was arrested at a protest yesterday in solidarity with Palestine, which loosely depended on resources from various nonprofit organizations. So, of course there are good organizations doing good work. But I think also what is new is the level of complicity, or lack of criticality, and kind of treating these as ideal political horizons. Kind of forgetting that these organizations are not anywhere close to what we should be aiming for politically in terms of how we support a healthy society because they’re just not sustainable. And going back to this thing of focusing on tangible measurable impact of social good, that’s often [using] very elite liberal metrics. I think there are very limited rigid metrics for how social good is quantified in these organizations.
Filmmaker: Could you talk a bit about the form of the piece, which you have described as “narrativized research as spoken prose.” I have to admit that when I first started watching it, it really felt like a delivery system for the text, but then as you began to play with the subtitles, the vocal delivery, the THX tone, it began to work on me in a different way.
de Agustin: I mean, it started with a crisis of whether I’m a filmmaker or not. (laughs)
Filmmaker: What was that crisis?
de Agustin: I’ve always made films, but I’ve always been really interested in text, writing, voice and traditions of the essay and diary films. I was amassing this monologue and interested in embodying the two main characters and the broader narration all in my own voice, which is kind of a separate struggle with every project. I tell myself, I’m going to hire a voice actor, and then I end up doing it myself because it’s really important to trouble how I am personally implicated in these issues but also how the protagonist character in this film is not me. I mean, I hope I don’t end up succumbing to that fate, but we of course have a lot of overlap.
There was a long time where I was like, “Holy shit, is this just an essay? I’m done with making visual things.” Also, I have thought a lot about whiteness more broadly in previous lecture performance projects, where I’m kind of performing a caricature of white victimhood. I just became really interested in how whiteness was emerging both as literal white walls but also more conceptually in the art world — whiteness as a racial phenomenon. And then cinematically, I’ve been interested in troubling what it means to make cinematic work. So there were points when I thought I was just going be shooting lots of different empty gallery spaces and that would compose most of what we’re looking at during this voiceover. There were points when I thought I was going to be shooting this in the gallery spaces as a relatively straightforward narrative with these two characters. But I really needed to settle into the simplicity. The THX deep note thing can be taken as many different things, but for me it is kind of a “fuck you” to the cinematic question, because it doesn’t get more cinematic than the THX deep note.

Filmmaker: Part of the film’s concept is that it’s only exhibited as a part of a discussion. What sort of people do you bring in to have this kind of discussion, and how does this piece open up to an audience? What sort of audiences are coming and what sort of discussions are resulting?
de Agustin: The medium of the piece is technically “video and discussion.” So far the structure is to show the 13-minute film, and then me and two other facilitators — not panelists — do a prep session and compose a list of questions to help inspire conversation that we kind of guide people through. Ideally I try for at least one person who works at the exhibiting institution because it’s important for us to talk about the context in which we’re showing the work. If there are current labor issues going on at that institution, I try to encourage them to be transparent about that. But it’s varied pretty widely. The audience is self-selecting in a sense. It’s a lot of people who have a connection to the art and film worlds in some way, usually museum workers. But some of the most valuable contributions have come from people who work in other nonprofit sectors; at the Spectacle screening there was someone who’s working at in a tenant’s rights legal nonprofit and someone who does nonprofit ecology. But these are still film screenings, and when you’re trying to subvert the political limitations of these spaces, there’s only so much that can happen within them.
My hope for these discussions is that people leave with a couple new friends and, ideally, [think about] how they can bring these ideas of elite capture more to the forefront in their day-to-day lives, whether that’s in their workplaces or organizing spaces. And my greatest hope, and maybe it sounds a bit corny, is that they open up people’s imaginations. It feels like there’s so little imagination in the broader political sphere. Also, these events have been responsive to current events. So the past couple of events have dwelled quite a bit on what I and many others see as the McCarthyite backlash to people voicing solidarity with Palestine and what it means to exercise freedom of expression as an arts worker.
Filmmaker: I love the line in the piece, “Any worthwhile non-profit works towards the conditions of its own obsolescence.” That’s such a radical idea because self-preservation, which does involve continuing to pay salaries, is such a core and unexamined goal of most any non-profit today.
de Agustin: As a left/left-ish culture we’ve put such a high value on these organizations. Of course they’re doing good work, and if they stopped existing it would have a materially negative impact on the communities they are servicing. But it’s all about holding different timelines in your head at once. Every organization needs to figure out a way to not just be focused on how to pay everyone’s salary every year. And, it’s not necessarily their fault because of course these organizations are also caught up in a system — they’re on a hamster wheel.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to replicate the metrics critique that’s in your piece, but have you thought of alternative structures outside of the 501c3 organization? Other models that have suggested themselves?
de Agustin: I think all of the solidarity economy stuff is interesting. I think a lot of young people trying to figure out new more equitable economic structures often just becomes small business talk and not any different from running a normal LLC. But locally I’ve been inspired by Cinemovil. Mission Drift screened there, and I’m friends with a lot of people there. I think they are doing the most exciting things in the film sphere at the moment. And they are not alone – there are organizations like them [that] collectivize everyone’s resources – a few bucks here and there, or this person has access to professional printing and this person has projection equipment and so on and so forth. Those kinds of spaces have been the most inspiring for me.

I think the way to ultimately to get to more serious answers to the question that you’re asking is to have more spaces that, whatever term you want to use (collectively run, DIY), foreground serious leftist culture and radical direct action with an internationalist tone. Coming from an arts and culture perspective, I think that’s the first step for foregrounding a tangible politics.
Filmmaker: Finally, tell us about the upcoming long-form project that you got NYSCA funding for, funding which I presume you received through a non-profit.
de Agustin: Yes, it’s funny. I applied through Fractured Atlas, and they’ve been wonderful, even though they are taking $500 of my grant [laughs]. I was pleasantly surprised [to receive the grant], and it’s important that it’s coming from New York state. I wrote in the application that I want to talk about the application process as part of the work itself. Hopefully they’re willing to be interviewed as part of that process. But formally it’s still developing in my mind. I’m just writing a lot of prose and poetry and essayistic stuff, and I’m hoping to have a premiere somewhere later this year. But I’m continuing these threads of seduction and sacrifice in relation to being a culture worker that are in Mission Drift but bringing them to a broader political field, and I’m deepening a contemporary critique of the nonprofit and philanthropic world. The simple fact that it’s grown so much in recent years in relation to social justice movements, I think, is frightening in a lot of ways, and it’s enough of a task for this film to just clarify that. But the secondary goal, again, is getting more people to develop a sense of a responsibility to collectivize and use their time and energy toward revolutionary class struggle, whatever that means in the United States in the 21st century beyond do-gooder ideologies. Also, you know, just being real that this film is going to be showing to people in the Global North art and film world and being very conscious of the kind of people who are consuming the work. I’m not sure if it’s going to take the same kind of video and discussion format, and I’m also thinking about how direct action can be built into the form of the film itself in relation to the exhibiting institutions.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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