When the Tate Britain in London underwent physical renovation, certain parts, essential key points of the museum were closed; places where people would normally walk became unavailable. Messing with the way the museum normally functioned and making people in the building behave differently than they would otherwise, the renovation generated a side effect; people couldn’t move through space the way they were used to and meant to. In the language of architects this is called a “script”- a list of cues we, humans, take when we walk through a building. So when Curator Marianne Mulvey contacted Pratt-trained performance architect Alex Schweder with regards to this temporarily diminished “script,” it wasn’t for a casual renovation job but to devise a new kind of script, a different pattern of action.
It is half past six post GMT in the Duveen Galleries’ large corridor of the Tate Britain. Surprisingly, the gallery is empty: no Rodin, no antiques but the slow swarming of a young and emphatic crowd. The event is called “PRACTISE ARCHITECTURE: rehearse here, perform everywhere” a work by Alex Schweder and Lamis Bayar.
A quick glimpse at the old barrel-vaulted limestone gallery to discover, stuck to the wall, in white imprints, short, quick imperative sentences inviting to “Touch this wall” or to “Look only at this wall and turn left” or simply “Exercise free will”. And so it went: people interacted with the architecture yet following a different script than what the original would have been. Success. But Schweder’s work goes further.
“Performance: Life bodies working towards an aesthetic end.”
“Architecture: The construction and dissolution of boundaries between people in space.”
- Schweder -
“Subjects perform themselves differently and in different context depending whether you are a man or a woman. In the way we perform gender we simply take the decision of the room we choose to walk into: is it the one labelled male or is the one labelled female?” This concept borrowed from Judith Butler’s theory of performativity – or the way in which we perform being human beings – is at the core of Alex Schweder’s work.
“Through the history of performance,” he explains, “architects discovered strategies for performing the city in ways that would render it political, within very small interactions and in insertions that were neither costly nor labour intensive to do but with great impact on the populace.”
Using that same history, it is in 2007 that Pedro Gadanho, curator at the MoMa and Alex Schweder will develop a different approach that will refresh the subject of Performance Architecture. But while Gadahno’s focus will develop in urbanism opening a more political, almost activist practice, Schweder, having added Princeton University and a Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome to his portfolio, will choose quite a different path.
Interested in the religious embodiment of Gothic cathedrals and the symbol of perfection that the Truvian body represents, Schweder will devise his own theory: relation between bodies and buildings in the way buildings act as mirrors for our bodies when we think of our bodies through buildings.
“In history, the first performances focused on actions that occurred in everyday spaces: you have the audience here and the performer there: the audience watches the performer. With performance art it is often the audience doing the performing themselves. Now, taking this kind of thinking and applying it to architecture; actions and live bodies; situations in every day spaces; if you overlay these two things: the attitude of performance art with architecture, you start to become playful with behavior, with the action, with the program of the building. Thinking of the building having a program – what actions occur within the building – in my work, rather than program I think of performance. It’s the action of a building with more permission, with more invention by those who use it. You can think of it as either a Jazz musical score as opposed to a classical score which is intended to be followed quite closely, there’s not a lot of interpretation, or a John Cage score which is even more open ended. Performance architecture is about aestheticizing the action that occurs within the building and using the building as a script for doing so. There is a whole history of architecture involving the body as an example giving a kind of history of how idealized bodies have come to inform the way we design building, building as effigies of those bodies that we would like to have; and then we occupy these bodies that we would like to have.”
Trying to find ways of insufflating life into architecture, Schweder hatches with the concept of a “time based body”. Having worked seven years as a mold and leak expert in Seattle for lawsuits as a way of supporting himself, he comes to the point that buildings are alive, uprating much more similarities to our flesh than we want them to; that “if a building is time based we will see our bodies in it, if we can notice time passing we can see the body of that building and a building – like our imperfect bodies – rots.”
In This Apple Tastes Like Our Living Room Used to Smell, 2007, Schweder creates a small bioplastic model of a house. Filled with grass seeds, as time passes, we see the house degrading, decaying, as nature takes over the model. The building is performing itself as a building that changes overtime quickly enough for you to notice its change. Then it’s the epiphany.
Schweder comes with inflatables, such as A Sac of Rooms Three Times a Day, 2007 where a big inflatable vinyl reproduction of the four rooms of an 800 square foot house is stuffed into a 500 square foot bungalow and blown up by fans or in A Sack of Rooms all Day Long, 2009 the work, he explains, “is something too big inside something too small, causing the work to continually fluctuate between something recognizable and a jumble of lines. By using inflatables, you would have the same relationship to this structure as you would to a performance: you watch it change overtime. Which in that sense it is very much like a traditional performance.”
Although questioning dynamics, it would be too easy to brand Schweder’s rationale of dualistic. Understanding architecture as a kind of cue for actions, as something similar to Georges Brecht’s Chair Event, 1960, Schweder’s work is about the ways buildings construct relationship between people. Our Weight Around Us, 2009, an inflatable double settee sofa has only been blown with enough air for only a one settee sofa making it very difficult to sit on it. Furthermore in Counterweight Roommate 2011, we see Schweder attached to Ward Shelley, the absence of vertical circulation system implies that both have to use the weight of the other person to move. “Relationship and variables,” he explains, “coordination and synchronicity.”
Now look for Schweder and you might find him here in England accomplishing PhD studies at Cambridge, something he started in 2012. Or maybe you would find him at the Opus Gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan for his most accomplished project on until March the 1st. A scheme of work he started in 2009 in Its Form Will Follow Your Performance borne from the relation of subjects to objects and how do spaces and buildings start to make us think about ourselves, Schweder “renovates people’s homes” by changing the way they behave in them. Contacted via an ad on Craiglist or by simple word of mouth, they meet and discuss. Then our performance architect goes to their home and enacts the first performance, writing notes, instructions, that relate to how to perform what the situation is and what it will trigger. The photograph is then hung in their house for tenants to re-enact: in Schweder’s words, the client is thus the author of the work’s final outcome.
In a kind of architectural psychoanalysis session, people give insight on the way they feel about their space and their frustrations – no physical work here, but only written instructions designed to change the way people perform their house. Quite a convenient opportunity that Schweder is currently finishing a PhD. “People are more likely to come to a doctor,” he says.
February 22, 2012 · Print This Article
I met João Florêncio over the summer by accident. I was a tourist at a SEPFEP, a philosophy conference in York. My boyfriend was presenting a paper and I happened to tag along — using up some free miles that must have accumulated with my parents’ help. While there, I wasn’t planning to visit any panels but nevertheless, I did. It was great. I had one of those brain infusions that sits with you for months and years, as your consciousness tries to digest what it has consumed. In particular, I got a crash course on feminism and learned more about Object Oriented Ontology — the subject of João’s presentation. He gave a paper about performance and how it might be considered as an object, a thing possessing its own autonomous being, a being not contingent on humanity. I wanted to ask him more questions on the subject and this seemed like a good opportunity. João is a Portuguese scholar currently based in London and researching on Contemporary European Philosophy and Performance Art. He is also an associated researcher of ‘Performance Matters.’
Caroline Picard: How do you think about performance?
João Florêncio: What first drove me to think about performance was my interest in what is generally known as ‘Performance Art’ (or its more British term ‘Live Art’). Despite having been both trained as a classical musician from an young age in a junior conservatoire and received my first degree in musicology, it was not until I discovered performance art that I started thinking about what it means to perform.
Anyhow, after a change of academic focus during my MA, I found myself enrolling on the PhD programme in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, in order to carry out what would turn out to be a research project on a new ontology of performance. The reasons for that are varied but they can be summed up by an increased awareness on my part that ‘performance’ is a term that is increasingly used to describe the behaviour of various beings, from humans to computer networks, from national economies and stock markets to higher education institutions. Nevertheless, and despite some exceptions (here I’m thinking of theorist Jon McKenzie), Performance Studies, the academic field within which I’m working, hasn’t spent enough time trying to theorise those occasions of nonhuman performance; it suffers, in my view, from a certain humanist or anthropocentric malaise for reasons that I can point out, if you want.
The question I faced then was how to think of nonhuman performance, how to try to write a new general theory of performance that is able to account for occasions of both human and nonhuman performativity, when Performance Studies doesn’t seem to be offering me any kind of useful theoretical tools to do so? After a couple of years of research, I think I have finally found the medicine I was looking for, and I found it in a cocktail of Information Theory, Cybernetics, Actor-Network-Theory and the fairly recent branch of Continental Philosophy known as Object-Oriented Ontology. These bodies of work, along with a few dashes of Quantum Theory and Philosophy of Mind (for good measure), have helped me take Performance Studies to a place where it had hitherto dared not to go and find a new vibrancy in the world of objects.
Thus, and to finally kind of answer your question, I currently see performance in a very simple (yet useful) way: performance is nothing other than the process through which an object is translated into a version of itself able to be experienced by another object. By translatable object I don’t only mean a musical score, a theatre play, an idea, or even a person; rather, an object (like Graham Harman demonstrates) is anything that has an autonomous existence: from a person to a rock, from a shot of electricity fired by a neuron to a bankrupt financial institution, from a debt-ridden national economy to a melting iceberg. Performance is, in my view, that which allows for an object to manifest itself in the experience of another object by performing a double of itself. So yes, a performance is always performance and object at once. Because all objects that are given to us (or to any other objects) in experience are performances of other objects. Think about it as the whole world being a stage (isn’t that what ‘they’ say?). If the whole world is a stage, then everything in it is playing some role at some point and the only thing we (and everything else) have access to are the characters, the roles played and not the real actors playing them. Suddenly the whole world is full of life, packed with mysteries and hidden places I’d like to visit. What about you?
CP: Of course! That sounds amazing — in so far as suddenly the objects one encounters (including oneself, I assume) possess something autonomous and dynamic. One thing that makes me curious, though, is the kind of priviledge that we have traditionally built into art objects. We want to distinguish them from everyday objects, like rocks for instance. But the way you talk about performance makes me imagine little to no distinction between a Marina Abramović piece and an everyday encounter with a light post. Does art need to maintain its hierarchical plinth to be art?
JF: I’d say there are at least two different kinds of performance: the performance that brings forth an object’s double onto another object’s experience (the kind of performance I mentioned earlier) and then there is a particular second kind of performance, a performance that starts by being like the first one but that then becomes something else. It begins by translating an object into the phenomenological realm of experience but then, for reasons that, in my view, have to do with a change on the way objects engage with each other as audiences, it goes beyond the experience of the given sensual object to suddenly denounce the presence of the real object hidden behind it (even if it never really makes it known). I see it like the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, the defamiliarisation effect through which audiences realise the play they’re watching isn’t reality itself: they become aware of the fiction of theatre; the presence of the actor behind the character is denounced. If the first kind of performance gives us the experience of what graham Harman has called ‘time’ (by allowing us to perceive sensual objects and changes in their sensual qualities), then this second kind of performance gives us ‘space’, the sudden realisation that the real is much deeper than we had hitherto known. It is also this second kind of performance that is usually associated with the art object. However, in my view, it has nothing to do with the nature of the object being experienced but with the nature of the experience itself. If we are to truly support a flat and democratic object-oriented ontology, then we cannot divide the world into ‘normal objects ‘and ‘art objects.’ Art objects don’t exist ontologically. What exists is a particular kind of relation between objects, the aesthetic relation. The aesthetic relation can in principle exist between any two objects. If we think about it, that has already been the case since the first avant-garde. just think of Duchamp’s ready-mades: they are objects like all others; the only thing that changed was that they were placed in a context that triggered an aesthetic engagement on the part of the audience, that context being the so-called ‘art exhibition’. However we do not need art galleries to tell us when to engage with other objects aesthetically: I can be enchanted by anything around me as long as I allow it to myself. It’s almost like my teenage LSD tree-hugging trips. Didn’t ‘they’ say something about opening the doors of perception? Perhaps we are the new hippies but without their terrible sense of fashion. Anyway, I digress here. Let’s just say that in a world made of equal objects and ridden of anthropocentrism, there is no privileged ontological space for ‘art objects.’ Because if we allow the art object to be in any way privileged, then we are a step closer to getting back to anthropocentrism because if art is special, then so must be its creator (the human genius). There is no art; there is only aesthetic experience. And, yes, sometimes the light post is also present; presence is not a quality that only Marina Abramovic has.
CP: That’s what I was going to ask, actually…are there certain objects that are not vehicles of aesthetic experience?
JF: I’m not sure if I understood your question but I think all objects are capable of some kind of aesthetic experience even if perhaps we won’t ever be able to fully know how that operates. We can only speculate that, if an object can never really access another object but only relate to its sensual double, then we can call that a basic form of aesthesis, understood in its original Greek meaning of ‘perception.’ Hence, I believe that Graham Harman called aesthetics the first philosophy because the nature of all relationality between all objects is aesthetic. In what regards Abramovic’s reenactments of her own works, I’m not sure if each reenactment of the work counts as a new real object or, rather — and this is what I’m inclined to believe — as a new sensual version of a same object. We can understand reenactment very simply as a new performance (or a new translation) of the same real object, very much like every time the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Shubert’s Symphony No. 9, we are not listening to a new symphony but to a new ‘reading’ of it, a new interpretation, in this case Ricardo Muti’s translation of the original object. What different translations give us is a different point of view of an object without ever giving us the totality of that object (as the object will always withdraw or be protected from our full access via some sort of firewall). So, yes, Abramovic’s reenactments can give us different aspects of the original, to use your words. And those can be aspects that not even Abramovic herself is aware of as the original work as real object that it is, withdraws even from Abramovic’s full access.
CP: How you describe objects’ exchange with one another as audiences…what does that mean? Or, maybe more to the point: how does that work? Do objects have congnisance of one another?
JF: The answer to your second question comes from this previous answer: When I say objects operate as audiences when relating to sensual versions of another object, I mean that objects witness performance or translation, the reenactment of each other. This is not the same as saying that all objects are sentient and conscious of each other (humans and animals might be but I’m not sure about rocks and tree trunks). They are, however, changed by entering into relation with sensual objects just as audiences are changed when witnessing a performance. (I must note here that the relationship between performance and transformation of audiences and performers has been one of the core ideas surrounding Performance Studies since its inception as a field of academic enquiry). We can easily see that being the case: a tree enters into relation with an axe and, like an audience, it is transformed by it – gets cut, gets the shape of the axe’s blade imprinted in its own trunk – without ever having full access to the axe – it doesn’t know anything about the texture of the axe’s handle, its temperature, or its colour, for instance. Or a rock is shaped by the ocean’s waves, gets transformed, but still is not able to access the size of the ocean, the flora and fauna living in it, its saltiness, its reflection of the sunlight, or even the size of the oil spill covering it a few miles away in the Golf of Mexico. In that same way some of us sat in front of Marina Abramovic at MoMA and were transformed by it – some cried, some smiled, some felt reassurance – but nobody was able to fully access Abramovic’s ‘substance’ or, if you want, the totality of her being – her feelings, the sensations on her skin, her own sense of space, our image formed in her retina and being fired at the speed of light all the way up to her visual cortex, etc. As I see it, all relations in the world involve something or someone performing and something or something witnessing the performance, an audience.
CP: In closing, I am almost inclined to ask a sort of sentimental question; how has your day-to-day perception of the world shifted with the incorporation of this philosophy? I can’t help feeling like it might change the undercurrent of your most banal experiences…
JF: I like your last question. There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental. I’m Mediterranean, after all. I think the way I look at things has changed after having read all this object-oriented philosophers and after having been working for a while on the intersection of performance studies and object-oriented philosophy. I think I started looking at things in a different way… I think perhaps to try to ‘catch them’, to try to have a glimpse of what they’ve been hiding. It’s actually hilarious when I find myself sneakingly looking at things like if they came from another planet. It can be a sign of madness but I like to think it is a sign of a rediscovered fascination with everything around me, with the enchanting side of everyday objects. It makes the world suddenly full of stuff waiting to be rediscovered and experienced in different manners. Like every stone hides a treasure or something like that. Call me a romantic, it’s OK.
Far from the crowds flocking to the De Kooning retrospective on its top floor, a modest but exciting show on the basement level of the Museum of Modern Art’s education wing charts the evolution of The Whole Earth Catalog. Published in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s, its goal was to give a swelling generation of politicized back-to-the-landers and flower children “access to tools,” to show them where to go to buy the things they needed to live a life in sync with the ecology around them. Goods and services weren’t sold through the catalog, although it did list where one might buy them.
In the show, visitors can sit at a big table and browse a few editions of The Whole Earth Catalog cleverly secured to a large, immovable rock that evokes the landscapes of the American West where many of the Catalog‘s users retreated from mainstream society. Flipping through these big, heavy editions feels like a trip to a history museum. On display: arc welders, build-it-yourself domes, dairy goats, and dutch ovens alongside books on un-schooling, the global population explosion, and Buddhist Economics. All of the design and type were set by hand and, in the last edition of the Catalog, its founder Stewart Brand reviews and explains the tools–things like an IBM Selectric typewriter, beeswax adhesives, and daily post-lunch volleyball games–that had a role in shaping the look and process of publishing the catalog.
At the same table, a facsimile of an article from Rolling Stone reports on the Whole Earth Catalog “Demise Party” held at San Francisco’s Exploratorium to mark Brand’s self-appointed end to the publication. After all of its accounts were settled, the Catalog was left with a surplus of $20,000–the same amount as the investment it started out with. At the party, Brand announced that he was giving it all away. The fifteen hundred people in attendance were to collectively decide what to do with the money. Near chaos ensued, with some people taking bills then later giving them back. Some proposed to either burn all the cash or give it to Native Americans. In the wee hours, it was decided that a man who had been there through all the votes and discussions would leave with the cash so that it could be put in a bank and a decision could be made what to do with it later. It never made it to the bank, but he eventually gave it away to “worthy groups.” The Catalog may have provided access to tools, but it didn’t always recommend what to do with them. The tool needed at the “Demise Party,” a way to make decisions with a large group of people, simply didn’t have the time to emerge.
Right now, also in New York, a movement that shares an ethos with The Whole Earth Catalog is gathered in the Financial District and may just have their hands on such a tool. At Occupy Wall Street, no organization provides the services that city governments and non-profits do, people provide for themselves. To say that the square lacks these official organizations does not mean that the mass of people gathered there aren’t organized. In fact, there’s plenty of organization: food donations and dish-outs, a library, a staffed info booth, a mailing address at a nearby UPS Store, legal aid, and a sanitation committee to name a few. By occupying a space for over two weeks and not containing themselves to one afternoon of protest, the protestors have taken for themselves what seems to be in short supply for all of us: time.
The most striking organizing in the square is the General Assembly. Twice a day, everyone in the square gathers for one large meeting helped along by facilitators. Facilitators are trained in a method of running large meetings in a horizontal, democratic fashion that was used earlier this year during mass protests in Spain. Facilitators rotate between meetings and everyone can become one. A collection of hand gestures allows people to nonverbally communicate a variety of things. These run from the basic agreement, ambivalence, and disagreement to signals like “point of process,” used when someone feels an imminent decision needs further discussion or more information. There are also ways to indicate someone has information relevant to the matter at-hand or that if a specific motion passes, it will cause someone to leave the movement. This last gesture, called a “block,” is treated gravely by all and used only as a last resort. The overall process enables a large group of people to make decisions together in real time. Many excerpts from General Assemblies are on YouTube, you can see the process in action in one of them below. People repeat what each speaker says because megaphones have been banned in the square and repetition is the only way to ensure everybody can hear.
Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been around long enough to reach as many people as The Whole Earth Catalog has, but for anyone who has been able to drop by so far, it provides a compelling glimpse of human-scale democracy. It’s no utopia, but in Liberty Square, tools for getting along with other human beings are both tried out and invented. In this sense, the square echoes one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catalog: its product reviews. Because the publishers hadn’t tried every product the Catalog listed, they solicited reviews from people who had. These reviews patched together a network of expert amateurs in order to figure out what tools work well. They’re by turn informative, funny, poetic, and passionate. The product reviews led Brand to state that Whole Earth was “a catalog of goods that owed nothing to its suppliers and everything to its users.” This isn’t to say the protestors must look to the Catalog as a model, but that we might productively think of the “users” of Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupation movements now building around the US as fellow reviewers. They’re out there creating spaces that inventory peer-reviewed and field-tested social goods that would serve us well and keep us whole in a more just, more democratic society.
If there’s one thing readers of the Bad at Sports blog share, besides a love of art, it’s an affection for podcasts. Duncan assures me that most of our listeners come through iTunes, which isn’t surprising. I probably interact with iTunes everyday, not because I want to, but because it’s ubiquitous. One thing I don’t do much of is spend time at the iTunes store. My podcasts load automatically, I stream my television, and I still purchase music the old fashioned way–on compact disc. Yet recently I’ve found a reason to love iTunes, and that’s iTunes U.
In case you are unfamiliar, iTunes U is just like iTunes but with less Katy Perry. Clicking on the Fine Arts tab will take you to sea of offerings from well-known universities such as Harvard and Yale as well as venerable institutions that we might not immediately consider educational, like MoMA. Before I found Bad at Sports, I listened to a dozen “art” podcasts I had browsed out of iTunes, one of which was simply two stoned guys walking around the Seattle Art Museum talking about the work they saw, but never letting their listeners in on the secret of which piece they were looking at. This kind of monkey-business won’t be found on iTunes U. Their definition of “fine art” is broad, including, of course, visual art, but also media studies, music, theater, and cooking. The variety of format is broad as well. There are regular podcasts like the one you already listen to each week, video lectures, but there are also fully-produced magazine-style shows that look as good as anything you’d see on your local PBS station.
By no means exhaustive, I’ve picked a few highlights that I thought would be of interest. The School of Visual Arts (SVA) has an impressive collection of video lectures about contemporary art and culture. These are organized in the most boring way possible, by department, with the name of the chairperson as your guide. I’m currently watching a symposium called “Where the Truth Lies” that discusses propaganda in documentary film. From The Experience Music Project (EMP) you’ll find 2009′s (and 2010 and 2011) Pop Conference on the theme of Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic. Particularly interesting is the lecture by David Scott, “Gay for Play: The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name Certainly Does Sell Records.” Here an audio only podcast is just fine. Lastly, while I usually try to steer clear of all things Florida, The University of Southern Florida has a great series called Lit2Go, which is fantastic. Really nothing more than a collection of classics read aloud by English professors, Lit2Go is a great time. I just finished re-”reading” Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that bears the distinction of being subject of Bad at Sports’ only book group.
When I was a little girl, my mother told me that in the future anyone could learn anything she wanted, all we would have to do is turn on the television and our greatest artists and teachers would come right into our living room. Maybe television didn’t quite live up to its promise, but it looks as if the Internet might.
The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ft location in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects specifically for the collection and opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011). Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?
What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.
As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)
That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:
Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed. Thank you so much. Yours truly.
Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.