Guest post by Jacob Wick.
A current exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology, is a deft rebuttal of Institutional Critique. Take It or Leave It mashes together a variety of well-known works by well-known IC artists, creating a confused jumble of brands intelligible only if viewed in the same spirit as one views a shoe rack at a department store. The message, delivered through the cunning mess organized by curators Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum, and Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, seems to be: Institutional Critique, and by extension most current critical art, is irrelevant. Take it or leave it. I am tempted to agree.
Upon walking into the exhibition, on the second floor of the newly-free Hammer Museum, one encounters, first, and fittingly first, Andrea Fraser. She beams from a bulky television screen, leading a Gallery Talk (1989), a repeatable performance for which she is widely identified. As she primly leads us through a series of quotations lifted from museum brochures, reviews, and so on, highlighting an institutional language that has only intensified and become more isolated from everyday language in the last twenty to thirty years since Fraser led these tours—leading of course to that awful Institutional Art English article I hate so much, because honestly the everyday language of cricket fans or teenage YouTube enthusiasts is as unintelligible to me as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh might be to them, and you know, if you want to learn a sociolect, learn it, it’s really not that hard—we glance to the right and are accosted by Renée Green’s garish (but quite beautiful) Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (1992-1994), and a pair of bits of Mark Dion pieces, The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division) (1992) and New York State Bureau of Tropical Conservation (1992). This all in a room—a foyer, really—perhaps 8 ft x 20 ft. The trend continues throughout the rest of the show, with a bewildering oversaturation of work by easily recognizable IC artists organized room-by-room according to big dumb categories like THE MUSEUM or POLITICS. The POLITICS room, for instance, has two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, two works by Robert Gober, and three works each by Jenny Holzer and Fred Wilson! Wow! Oh, and a Glenn Ligon piece, if I remember right.
The aural confusion rivals the visual confusion, with sound bleeding from Andrea in front, a relatively innocuous guitar piece with very nice furniture by the only name I didn’t recognize in the show (and which I didn’t write down, but I probably should have laid down on the furniture, I have to admit I was a little tired while viewing, or attempting to view, this show), the arabesque from Dana Birnbaum’s three-channel video installation Arabesque, and several other voices speaking from several other video installations. One can really only walk through the show saying, “oh, Andrea Fraser! oh, Alan McCollum! oh, Felix Gonzalez-Torres! oh, Adrian Piper!” and so on. Each work, regardless of its individual merit or its potentially radical past effect on the institutionalized art world of the 1980s and 1990s, becomes a calling card, a simple brand identifier, a shoe. The effect is to suggest a feeling that Institutional Critique should be, or has already been, laid to rest, that it has suffered the same fate as its preceding movements and morphed into a series of innocuous and critically irrelevant calling cards.
While Institutional Critique was certainly relevant—often many other things, including beautiful, shocking, and a variety of other adjectives, many of which are vinyled to the already-crammed walls of the show in the form of various historical derogatory reviews of IC artists—during its heyday, in the Internet age, where anyone looking at art or working in the art world probably has a smartphone and enjoys, or pretends to enjoy, a variety of privileges vis a vis the rest of the world, including the ability to very easily and quickly assemble a tawdry list of dirt surrounding any institution, from Hammer to the dollar, the opacity that once enshrouded institutions with a veneer of acceptability and inevitability has been replaced with an ironic remove that ensures the same effect. This ironic remove serves a very useful purpose insofar as it allows us to continue living lives of privilege without the persistent nag of horror at how and where our clothes were made, where the materials in our smartphones were mined and in what conditions (not to mention the conditions in which they were made), and the total unraveling of the environment that has recently become apparent. There is, almost without doubt, a legacy of horror in at least one object within 50 ft of you; there is, almost without doubt, a weather event without precedent that is currently occurring or has recently occurred in the region where in which you live. A lightly sneering ironic remove allow us to, in the words of a WWII propaganda designed by British intelligence in the event of catastrophic air attacks that tellingly became a meme so successful that it adorns dorm rooms everywhere, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This ironic remove is necessary to live life without succumbing to a deep and unshakeable sense of doom and should be embraced, unabashedly, as such. This selfsame remove, however, is what renders work like IC, that attempts to call us out on things that we are very likely already aware of but are making a decision to ignore to retain a certain degree of sanity, irrelevant, for being reminded of the knowledge we are trying to ignore strengthens, rather than weakens, our barriers against it.
Let us, like Paul Bettany’s character in Dogville, consider an illustration. I am in a social situation with a friend. A party, perhaps, someone’s house or apartment, a someone that neither of us know particularly well, but who has invited us, for whatever reason, over. The party is relatively low-key. At some point, my friend goes to the bathroom. When my friend returns, I notice their fly is unzipped and mention that hundreds of people recently died in a factory fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, a fire that is having relatively little effect on the efforts of anyone to regulate garment factories in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where conditions are widely known to be unacceptable. I conclude by pointing out our party—our drinks, our clothes, our phones on which we take pictures and look up things on Wikipedia (or whatever), the iPad or iPod the music is playing off of, perhaps even the building we sit in, perhaps it is a house that was purchased and flipped after a predatory loan forced its foreclosure—is only possible because we are the privileged beneficiaries of a vicious and exploitative economic system so deeply pervasive that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine its alternatives. Have I performed Institutional Critique?
Insofar as a party is an institution—any party, regardless of its particular circumstances, contains both a normative protocol and an accompanying normative horizon of possible outcomes, just as any institution does—yes, I have. Formerly, institutions maintained credibility by disguising, with varying degrees of force, the aspects of their makeup that might damage that credibility. Institutional Critique directed its gaze, or rather our gaze, at these aspects. I can only assume that the effect was shocking and/or confusing, since I am too young to have experienced Institutional Critique during its era of relevance. In any case, were I to point out that to my friend that their pants were made in horrific conditions, etc, I would be highlighting an aspect of the institution that most parties try to leave out, namely that the objects that make the party fun were very likely produced in dire circumstances and as a result of great suffering.
While it is certainly possible that such a proclamation would have had an effect on a party pre-smartphone, it is almost impossible that such a proclamation, made now, would not be immediately dismissed or laughed off, or said, in the first place, with a degree of irony so as to neutralize its contents. Most people at the party, most people at any party of people that enjoy a certain level of privilege, likely already have heard about the Dhaka fire, or have heard the phrase “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” or something like it, and all of those people—those people who read Twitter or listen to NPR or the BBC or read the Guardian or whatever, who cares really—okay, us or we, not those people—choose to ignore these concrete facts of our own existences. We live in a constant state of dramatic irony, or something very close to the old Greek eirōneia.
Had we all been alive thousands of years ago, located in a relatively small area of the Mediterranean, and had the luck or circumstance to be a free or free-ish citizen of an antiquity-era Greek city-state, we might have, at some point, gone to a play. Regardless of whether or not this play was a tragedy or comedy, there would probably, at some point, be a character speaking from beneath us, down the stairs of the amphitheater onto the stage, a character who was speaking of something that we, the audience, knew was false. We would know it was false because of something else we had learned during the play, in another scene, a scene in which the character now speaking did not appear. We would know and the actor would know, probably, having been in rehearsals, spoken to other actors, and been aware of the general arc of the play. Everybody would know besides the character speaking, the character who has temporarily taken the place of the actor, who we—the audience and perhaps the actor, I don’t really know about acting—temporarily identify with, moreso than our identification with what is real.
We are now, at this point, the actors and audience in our own scenes, which are not in amphitheaters, but instead are in living rooms, museums, concert halls, book fairs, art fairs, galleries, restaurants, bars, whatever. At all of these times, in all of these places, we are ourselves, but we are different versions of ourselves: we are our house-party self, our museum self, our concert hall self, our book fair self, gallery self. Pablo Helguera, with droll precision, has highlighted this in his book Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World; Alex Galloway, much less drolly but no less precise, has highlighted this in his book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Both authors point out that we act not in regard to dictates from sovereign power—the King, the state, whatever—but rather in regard to the protocols (for Helguera, scripts) we assume to be inherent and inevitable in a given situation. When briefly employed at a Hollywood gallery for which I was asked to write a press release for a show of paintings I found tedious and boring, I did not, for instance, write “this show is tedious and boring, but would probably look great above your designer furniture and that’s why it’s being shown here,” but rather wrote a press release in the style of blue-chip gallery press releases (“We are pleased to present…”). I’m not sure if that’s a particularly good example, but who cares? All saltwater fish will die off in 35 years.
For the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Andrea Fraser contributed a pair of essays: “There’s No Place Like Home,” in which she eloquently considers (and doubts) her own relevance; and “L’1% C’est Moi,” a beautifully-researched, well-written account of the current art market and its inextricable ties with the very people many critical artists, whose livelihoods depend on the art market, love to hate. The latter, while very informative, is very clearly Institutional Critique, a highlighting of an institutional issue that was very likely already known, and if unknown certainly intuited, by whoever might have read it. The former, on the other hand, is an investigation into the nature of critique, in which Fraser wonders if
… by interpreting negations as critique, by responding to judgments of attribution with judgments of attribution, by aggressively attempting to expose conflicts and to strip away defenses in critiques of critiques and negations of negations, critical practices and discourses may often collude in the distancing of affect and the dissimulation of our immediate and active investments in our field.
Does critique, of the sort that pervaded Institutional Critique and that pervades critical art following IC, aid us in our collective pushing away of actual, real problems? Does it aid us in ignoring that the Whitney is funding by the financial institutions and executives who are responsible for the slow bleed-out of the world’s environment, of global socio-economic mobility? Does it help us “Keep Calm and Carry On?” Sure it does, because we already know all that shit and we’re ignoring it because we’re alive and what else are we going to do!
In a conversation I had recently with Renzo Martens about the Institute for Human Activities, for which he is the Creative Director, while he was in town for a solo show at The BOX, he mentioned both that he is interested in redirecting critical art’s “mandate” and that his work with the IHA is decidedly non-revolutionary. “We’re just going to do what art does,” he said. “Which is, like, create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and see how it goes.” The IHA is an institution that quite earnestly touts art as a means for revitalizing a town outside of Kinshasa in the war-torn, globally-exploited DRC and which operates off of the already well-established model of the global arts residency. The IHA will, and has already attempted to begin to, teach drawing and other arts-related classes to palm-oil plantation workers; a few of these workers will be particularly talented; the IHA will, with the local artists’ permission, sell their drawings in the international art market; the proceeds from these sales will lift those few lucky artists out of poverty; other palm-oil workers may become more interested in art and work harder on drawings than on manufacturing palm oil; and so on. The settlement will offer an artists’ residency for artists to engage with the local arts scene and teach classes to locals. Meanwhile, rich people, who love to be around the creature comforts that artists surround themselves with—nice bars, cappuccinos, good food, artists—will stay in an onsite hotel, increasing the settlements’ real-estate value and general quality of life. Perhaps these people will buy or build houses near or on the settlement, as they have in places like Marfa, TX, raising the value of the property and ostensibly improving quality of life for everybody. In short, aside from the occasional swipe on its website, there is no critical component to the IHA at all. That said, the logical conclusion of the IHA—or one possible or believable conclusion, given that institutions function almost entirely on belief, as Adam Overton pointed out in my interview with him, not on logic—is that the palm-oil workers will stop working in the palm-oil plantation and start drawing, thereby robbing Unilever of the exploited underclass that it, like all capitalist enterprises, needs to survive.
If Martens is redirecting art’s critical mandate, as he says he wishes to do, he is redirecting it towards creating art that is not critical at all, but that rather simply does what art does, or what capitalism does, or what whatever does. Perhaps what we need now, he is saying—and, again, I can’t help but agree—is engagement, whether naïve or not, rather than negation, for only in our engagement can we, and whosoever has the (mis)fortune to surround our work, truly experience the absurd, hideous, exploitive nature of the institutions that structure our lives. As Danh Vo says in this hilariously uncomfortable YouTube interview with Bartholomew Ryan of the Walker Art Center: it is “very important to…exercise the bureaucracy.”
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info. Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology is on view until May 18, 2014, at the Hammer Museum. Renzo Martens: Episode III is on view until March 1st, 2014, at the BOX Gallery.
This week: San Francisco checks in with dance legend Anna Halprin!!!
Anna Halprin (b. 1920) is a pioneering dancer and choreographer of the post-modern dance movement. She founded the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop in 1955 as a center for movement training, artistic experimentation, and public participatory events open to the local community. Halprin has created 150 full-length dance theater works and is the recipient of numerous awards including the 1997 Samuel H. Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance from the American Dance Festival. Her students include Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Ruth Emmerson, Sally Gross, and many others.
Live Benefit Auction Event: March 9, 6-8:30 pm
Robert Rauschenberg Project Space
455 West 19th St, New York
Printed Matter, Inc, the New York-based non-profit organization committed to the dissemination and appreciation of publications made by artists, will host a Benefit Auction and Selling Exhibition at the Rauschenberg Foundation Project Space to help mitigate damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
As a result of the storm, Printed Matter experienced six feet of flooding to its basement storage and lost upwards of 9,000 books, hundreds of artworks and equipment. Printed Matter’s Archive, which has been collected since the organization’s founding in 1976 and serves as an important record of its history and the field of artists books as a whole, was also severely damaged. Moreover, the damage sustained by Sandy has made it clear that Printed Matter needs to undertake an urgent capacity-building effort to establish a durable foundation for its mission and services into the future.
This is the first fundraising initiative of this scale to be undertaken by the organization in many years, and will feature more than 120 works generously donated from artists and supporters of Printed Matter.
The Sandy Relief Benefit for Printed Matter will be held at the Rauschenberg Project Space in Chelsea and will run from February 28 through March 9th. The Benefit has two components: a selling exhibition of rare historical publications and other donated works and an Auction of donated artworks.
A special preview and reception will be held February 28th, 6-8 pm, to mark the unveiling of all 120 works and to thank the participating artists and donors. The opening will feature a solo performance by cellist Julia Kent (Antony and the Johnsons), followed by a shared DJ set from Lizzi Bougatsos (Gang Gang Dance) & Kyp Malone (TV on the Radio). The event is free and open to the public.
All works will then be available for viewing at the Rauschenberg Project Space March 1 – March 9, gallery hours.
All Selling Exhibition works may be purchased during this period and Auction works will be available for bidding online. Bids can be made at www.paddle8.com/auctions/printedmatter.
A live Benefit Auction Event will take place March 9, 6-8:30 pm with approximately 20 selected works to be auctioned in a live format. Bidding on these works will commence at 7pm sharp, while silent bids can be made on all other Auction works. Note, highest online bids will be transferred to the room. For absentee bidding of works, please contact Keith Gray (Printed Matter) at 212 925 0325 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The evening will feature a performance by Alex Waterman on solo cello with electronics. Admission is $150 and tickets may be pre-purchased here. There will be only limited capacity.
Highlighted auction works include an oversize ektacolor photograph from Richard Prince, a woven canvas piece from Tauba Auerbach, an acrylic and newsprint work from Rirkrit Tiravanija, a large-scale Canopy painting from Fredrik Værslev, a rare dye transfer print from Zoe Leonard, a light box by Alfredo Jaar, a book painting by Paul Chan, a carbon on paper work from Frances Stark, a seven-panel plexi-work with spraypainted newsprint from Kerstin Brätsch, a C-print from Hans Haacke, a firefly drawing from Philippe Parreno, a mixed-media NASA wall-piece from Tom Sachs, a unique print from Rachel Harrison, a vintage xerox poem from Carl Andre, an encyclopedia set of hand-made books from Josh Smith, a photograph from Klara Liden, a table-top sculpture from Carol Bove, Ed Ruscha’s Rooftops Portfolio, as well as original works on canvas and linen by Cecily Brown, Cheyney Thompson, Dan Colen, Adam McEwen, RH Quaytman, and many others.
These Auction works can be previewed at: www.paddle8.com/auctions/printedmatter
In addition to auction works, a vitrine-based exhibition of rare books, artworks and ephemera are available for viewing and purchase. This material includes some truly remarkable items from the personal collection of Robert Rauschenberg, donated by theRobert Rauschenberg Foundation in memory of the late Printed Matter Board Member, bookseller and publisher, John McWhinnie. Among the works available are books and artworks from Marcel Duchamp, Willem de Kooning, Alfred Steiglitz,Joseph Beuys, Brigid Berlin (Polk), as well as a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, a rare William Burroughs manuscript, and the Anthology Film Archive Portfolio (1982). Additional artists’ books have been generously donated by the Sol LeWitt Estate. Works include pristine copies of Autobiography (1980), Four Basic Kinds of Straight Lines (1969), Incomplete Open Cubes (1974), and others. Three Star Books have kindly donated a deluxe set of their Maurizio Cattelan book edition. These works can be viewed and purchased at the space. For inquiries about available works please contact Printed Matter’s Associate Director Max Schumann at 212 925 0325 or email@example.com.
Co-chairs Ethan Wagner & Thea Westreich Wagner and Phil Aarons & Shelley Fox Aarons have guided the event, and Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services has generously lent its expertise and assisted in the production of the auction.
In anticipation of the event Printed Matter Executive Director James Jenkin said:
“Not only are we hopeful that this event will help us to put Sandy firmly behind us, it is incredibly special for us. To have so many artists and friends associated with our organization over its 36 years come forward and support us in this effort has been truly humbling.“
Auction includes work by:
Michele Abeles, Ricci Albenda, Carl Andre, Cory Arcangel, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Tauba Auerbach, Trisha Baga, John Baldessari, Sebastian Black, Mark Borthwick, Carol Bove, Kerstin Brätsch, Sascha Braunig, Olaf Breuning, Cecily Brown, Sophie Calle, Robin Cameron, Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, Nathan Carter, Paul Chan, Dan Colen, David Kennedy Cutler, Liz Deschenes, Mark Dion, Shannon Ebner, Edie Fake, Matias Faldbakken, Dan Graham, Robert Greene, Hans Haacke, Marc Handelman, Rachel Harrison, Jesse Hlebo, Carsten Höller, David Horvitz, Marc Hundley, Alfredo Jaar, Chris Johanson, Terence Koh, Joseph Kosuth, Louise Lawler, Pierre Le Hors, Leigh Ledare, Zoe Leonard, Sam Lewitt, Klara Liden, Peter Liversidge, Charles Long, Mary Lum, Noah Lyon, McDermott & McGough, Adam McEwen, Ryan McNamara, Christian Marclay, Ari Marcopoulos, Gordon Matta-Clark, Wes Mills, Jonathan Monk, Rick Myers, Laurel Nakadate, Olaf Nicolai, Adam O’Reilly, Philippe Parreno, Jack Pierson, Richard Prince, RH Quaytman, Eileen Quinlan, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Ed Ruscha, Tom Sachs, David Sandlin, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Cindy Sherman, Josh Smith, Keith Smith, Buzz Spector, Frances Stark, Emily Sundblad, Andrew Sutherland, Peter Sutherland, Sarah Sze, Panayiotis Terzis, Cheyney Thompson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Nicola Tyson, Penelope Umbrico, Fredrik Værslev, Visitor, Danh Vo, Dan Walsh and Ofer Wolberger.
This week, I’ve delved into the Bad at Sports archive and pulled an especially interesting interview with Mark Dion, conducted by Duncan and Brian in June of 2010. Below, excerpts from Mark’s discussion of the joys of being a dilettante:
“I have a lot of interests but I have to keep that somewhat narrow, in a sense. I want to have some degree of expertise. I can’t do everything. I really do feel like it’s my responsible as an artist, that if I’m working around issues of zoology that I have to have a foundation in zoology, and if I’m working in issues of archaeology, I have to know that. So I can’t just jump from one thing to the other in a haphazard way, I do have a responsibility to at least have the core of what that field is. And so it’s difficult. I still am very much a dilettante, not a professional. I’m not an ornithologist or an ichthyologist or a herpetologist or an archaeologist, but I do try to use aspects of their shared methodologies in a way to tease out some of their own prejudices and to look at those fields from a distance. My wife often says, “you’re an archaeologist like Tin Tin is a journalist.”
“Certainly I had to study biology before I started this work in a formal way, but I’ve learned a lot going through these projects and having opportunities such as being artist in residence at the Natural History Museum of London. I do learn a lot by my contexts with these experts. We’re always partnering with other experts in the field, and that’s a big deal, to have someone you can trust who understands the emphasis of your project and can advise you on decisions.
“On one hand, very often I’m working with institutions that are practicing science now, and a lot of the individuals working in them are very tied to the history of that science, and we share an interest in that history and maybe even a passion for the aesthetics of that history. Very often, a lot of [the scientists who work in these institutions], they know by the time they’re 12 or 14 that this is what they want to do. I share that passion and that interest from the early stages, but I still exist as an amateur in a way.
“I could never be a scientist because the rigors of that and the amount of time one has to spend in front of a computer screen or in an office is just overwhelming. I meet people who spend two months in Guyana or wherever doing field work, collecting, and then for the next four years they’re in an office sifting through that material and making sense of it. Taking the road of the artist is the road I’ve chosen…of being a professional dilettante, in a sense. I’d like to rescue that term, “dilettante,” and bring it back…A lot of my work does hearken back to a moment where there’s a collapse of disciplines, to this kind of time where the artist, the scientiest, the poet, the theologian–were the same person.”
Click here to listen to or download the podcast.
This week: We talk to artist Mark Dion, about social practice, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, cabinets of curiosity. The word “taxonomy” is bandied about at great length.
Mark Dion was born in 1961 in Massachusetts; he lives and works in Pennsylvania.
Dion is known for making art out of fieldwork, incorporating elements of biology, archaeology, ethnography, and the history of science, and applying to his artwork methodologies generally used for pure science. Traveling the world and collaborating with a wide range of scientists, artists, and museums, Dion has excavated ancient and modern artifacts from the banks of the Thames in London, established a marine life laboratory using specimens from New York’s Chinatown, and created a contemporary cabinet of curiosities exploring natural and philosophical hierarchies.
His approach emphasizes illustration and accuracy but is charged with a biting undertone. Dion has a longstanding interest in exploring how ideas about natural history are visualized and how they circulate in society. Dion’s work has been presented at many U.S. and international museums and galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver; Galleria Emi Fontana, Milan; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; and Deutsches Museum, Bonn. Dion has been commissioned to create works for Aldrich Museum of Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut; the Tate Gallery, London; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
I wasn’t very familiar with Mark Dion’s Travels of William Bartram – Reconsidered until about a month ago. For this week’s video pick Dion returns to Bartram Gardens to install the objects he collected while on his journey.
“Travels of William Bartram – Reconsidered will examine the history and culture of 18th century American naturalists, John (1699-1777) and his son William Bartram (1739-1823). Using their travel journals, drawings, and maps, Dion plans to retrace the exploratory journeys of the Bartrams, in particular, William’s expedition to northern Florida. Often Dion and his companion “explorers” will travel in the same ways the Bartrams did: by horseback, boat, and on foot.”
For more info on the project check out the comprehensive project site.